Iowa Football

Iowa football and racial problems - a half-century ago

Black players boycotted spring practice; situation took months to resolve

Older University of Iowa football fans probably didn’t think another of their team’s offseasons would remind them of the one in 1969.

Then came the last month, when African Americans who played in Kirk Ferentz’s Hawkeyes program spoke out about mistreatment in the program. Much of it was centered on strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, who reached a separation agreement with the university in mid-June. An independent review of the program by a Kansas City law firm that will report to UI President Bruce Harreld is in progress.

For the second time in a little over a half-century, Iowa football was linked to racial conflict in a year in which racial strife flared nationally.

What set off a turbulent year for Iowa football in 1969 was head coach Ray Nagel’s April announcement that Black players Greg Allison and Charles Bolden wouldn’t be allowed to participate in spring practice because of “personal problems.”

According to a book written by longtime Iowa City Press-Citizen sports writer Al Grady about Iowa football from 1964 to 1988, it was rumored Allison had grade problems and Bolden had legal issues. Several weeks later, Bolden pleaded guilty to a bad check charge in Iowa City.

A day before the start of spring practice, representatives of the Afro-American Student Association met with officials of Iowa’s athletics department and incoming university President Willard “Sandy” Boyd.

Grady wrote: “Some of the blacks said they felt Bolden and Allison had been ‘ridiculed’ in the way in which Nagel announced their suspension, and demanded an apology to them from Nagel. That apology was made at a full meeting of the squad that very day.”

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But some Black players later said Nagel wasn’t sincere, and 16 of them boycotted the first day of practice. Nagel immediately dismissed them from the team. Just four Black players and 57 total were left.

“We have a policy that if a player misses practice with an unexcused absence, he is off the team,” Nagel said. “These men have decided not to be on our team.”

Note that the role of the Black athlete in college sports wasn’t as prominent in 1969 as 2020. The first integrated Southeastern Conference football game was in 1967. The 1969 Texas national-championship team was its last all-white one.

Not that it was nirvana in the North for Black college football players in 1969. Ten players left the Indiana University team that year, citing unequal treatment. Black students on Oregon State’s campus boycotted classes and some left the university altogether when a Black linebacker was suspended from the school’s football team for having a mustache and goatee on campus, violating the team’s ban on facial hair.

Two days after the Iowa players’ dismissal, a quickly-formed Black Athletes Union on campus released what it called an open letter to the public. Among its statements:

• “We would like it to be known that we don’t have now, or never had, any intentions of not participating in the intercollegiate athletic programs at the University of Iowa. Our primary concern is to demonstrate through our protest that there is an intolerable situation at the university for all Black people.”

• “It has been stated that the university has an integrated football team and an integrated community. We maintain that is not completely true.”

• “The requirements of eligibility do not meet those of graduation. Why? Simply because it was not intended that the Black athlete graduate.”

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Five of the players who boycotted held a news conference saying they wanted to rejoin the team, but listed five demands. Including:

• “We believe adequate counselors should be provided for all athletes to lead them in a positive and progressive course of study toward graduation.”

• “A five-year scholarship should be provided for those athletes who require an extra year for graduation.”

• “Some amount of autonomy should be left to the athlete in the control of his social and personal life. Expression of political belief should not be held against him.”

The first two of the demands eventually became part of the national college athletics fabric. The third surely resonates with the former Iowa players who recently said they didn’t feel comfortable being themselves in the team’s football building.

In late August of 1969, 12 of the 16 boycotting players wanted to return to the team and appeared before the entire squad at the Iowa Memorial Union. Nagel had the players vote on the players individually.

Earlier that month, Nagel participated in an I-Club golf event in Cedar Rapids and said “I may come into a lot of criticism, but I absolutely will not endorse any of the players without the approval of the squad — the peers of those who boycotted.

“I’ve talked to many of the Black athletes and some have admitted they made a mistake. I have compassion for them, but I do not have compassion for those who still believe they made the right decision.”

Seven players were reinstated, five rejected.

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Gazette sports columnist Gus Schrader wrote “Most of the players — white as well as Black — didn’t even want to discuss the issue (after the vote), preferring to forget the whole thing as soon as possible. A few white players, however, said the thing that influenced their vote was the sincerity of some of the players in seeking to return to the squad and abide by the rules.”

Among the seven welcomed back was tailback Dennis Green, who went on to be the head coach at Northwestern and with two NFL teams.

One of the five rejected was Ken Price. In early 1969 Nagel reprimanded Price for failing to stand during the playing of the national anthem at an Iowa basketball game.

Little happiness followed Hawkeye football for many years after that. Nagel was fired in the spring of 1970 for matters unrelated to the boycott. He and athletics director Forest Evashevski had an ugly feud, and both were relieved of their duties by the Iowa Board in Control of Athletics.

Change seems to come slowly in society, too slowly. In college football programs then and now, though, it can happen overnight.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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