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Latter Day Protest

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Issue: 57 Section: Sports Geography: USA Topics: racism, religion, mormon, gay rights

February 6, 2009

Latter Day Protest

The Mormon Church, anti-gay legislation, and challenges of the past

by Dave Zirin

The Mormon Church and Utah-based organizations have drawn the ire of gay activists for their funding and promotion of Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage in California. Photo: David Shankbone

TACOMA PARK, MARYLAND–As supporters of gay marriage have discovered, it's never easy to be on the Mormon Church's enemies list. The Church of Latter Day Saints backed the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in California with out-of-state funds, and gave the right a heartbreaking victory this past election cycle. But the Mormon Church has been challenged in the past. Just ask Bob Beamon.

If you know Beamon's name it's almost certainly because he won the long jump gold medal in legendary fashion at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Beamon leapt 29 feet, 2.5 inches, a record that held for 23 years. Great Britain's Lynn Davies told Beamon afterwards, "You have destroyed this event." This is because Beamon was not only the first long jumper to break 29 feet, he was the first to break 28.

But you may not know that Beamon almost never made it to Mexico City. Along with eight other teammates, Beamon had his track and field scholarship revoked from the University of Texas at El Paso, the previous year. They had refused to compete against Brigham Young University. Beamon and his teammates were protesting the racist practices of the Mormon Church, and their coach at UTEP, Wayne Vanderburge, made them pay the ultimate price.

They weren't alone. As tennis great Arthur Ashe wrote in his book, Hard Road to Glory, "In October 1969, fourteen black [football] players at the University of Wyoming publicly criticized the Mormon Church and appealed to their coach, Lloyd Eaton, to support their right not to play against Brigham Young University....The Mormon religion at the time taught that blacks could not attain to the priesthood, and that they were tainted by the curse of Ham, a biblical figure. Eaton, however, summarily dropped all fourteen players from the squad."

The players, though, didn't take their expulsion lying down. They called themselves the Black 14 and sued for damages with the support of the NAACP. In an October 25 game against San Jose State, the entire San Jose team wore black armbands to support the 14.

One aftershock of this episode was in November, 1969, when Stanford University President Kenneth Pitzer suspended athletic relations with BYU, announcing that Stanford would honor what he called an athlete's "Right of Conscience." The "Right of Conscience" allowed athletes to boycott an event which he or she deemed "personally repugnant." As the Associated Press wrote, "Waves of black protest roll toward BYU, assaulting Mormon belief and leaving BYU officials and students, perplexed, hurt, and maybe a little angry."

On June 6, 1978, as teams were refusing road trips to Utah with greater frequency, and the IRS started to make noises about revoking the church's holy tax-free status, a new revelation came to the Book of Mormon.

Whether a cynical ploy to avoid the taxman or a coincidence touched by God, the results were the same: Black people were now human in the eyes of the Church. African Americans were no longer, as Brigham Young himself once put it, "uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable, and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind." The IRS was assuaged, the athletic contests continued, and the church entered a period of remarkable growth.

Similar pressure must be brought to bear on the Mormon Church today for its financing of Proposition 8 in California. One nonprofit crunched the numbers and found that $17.67 million of the $22 million used to pass the anti-gay marriage legislation was funneled through 59,000 Mormon families since August. It was done with the institutional backing of the church, though many pro-gay Mormons have spoken out defiantly against the church's political intervention.

The question now is whether this latest tale of social conflict and the Church of Latter Day Saints will also spill onto the athletic field. Men's athletics have been one of the last proud hamlets of homophobia in our society (although the attitude of male athletes is more progressive than you might think). But women's sports have been historically more open around issues of sexuality.

Will any women collegians raise the specter of Proposition 8 if they have to travel to the schools of Utah? Will we see the ghosts of Black 14 emerge from the past? If any athletes choose to act, the ramifications could be "Beamonesque."

Dave Zirin is the author of A People's History of Sports in the United States (The New Press). Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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