Sixty-five years ago, the University of San Francisco’s undefeated football team took a memorable stand in defense of equal rights. The 1951 team, widely considered the best in the country, refused to play in a prestigious and financially lucrative postseason bowl game in the South because black players were barred from the playing field.
USF had two blacks — linebacker Burl Toler and fullback Ollie Matson, the nation’s leading college rusher that season. Matson went on to become a member of the NFL’s Hall of Fame, as did two of his white teammates, Gino Marchetti and Bob St. Clair.
The loss of postseason revenue forced USF to shut down its football program the following season, and the university never returned to big-time competition.
But USF, a Jesuit-run institution, has a clear sense of its mission. In 2006, the university awarded the team an honorary degree of doctorate in humane letters, followed by induction into the university’s Hall of Fame in 2009. In 2014, ESPN released an hourlong documentary – ’51 Dons — recognizing a team “whose supreme triumph came in choosing not to accept an invitation to a bowl game.”
By contrast, consider the moral indifference to discrimination being displayed by the University of California, Berkeley, and UCLA. The two universities are quite willing to have their football teams play games in states that trample on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents despite a new California law aimed at discouraging such activity. The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, bans publicly funded travel to states that have enacted discriminatory laws.
“Our zero-tolerance policy says there is no room for discrimination of any kind in California, and (this bill) ensures that discrimination will not be tolerated beyond our borders,” Democratic Assemblyman Evan Low of Campbell said in September when Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1887.
In November, the California attorney general’s office released a list of states likely to be included in the travel ban. The list, to be finalized soon, included North Carolina and Tennessee. Nevertheless, UC Berkeley and UCLA plan to take advantage of a loophole in the new law allowing schools to play games that had been scheduled before January 2017. The Cal Bears have a Sept. 2 game scheduled at the University of North Carolina, and UCLA is to play an away game at the University of Memphis Sept. 16.
In this era of financially lucrative college athletics, it’s hardly surprising university officials would try to use a loophole to sidestep the ethical principles they publicly espouse. UC Berkeley leaders, for example, don’t take too seriously this statement in their Principles of Community: “We affirm the dignity of all individuals and strive to uphold a just community in which discrimination and hate are not tolerated.”
Given such hypocrisy, I hope Berkeley and UCLA football players take the initiative to stand up for fair play and equal treatment for all, including teammates who could easily become the targets of legalized discrimination. They should refuse to participate in the September games in North Carolina and Tennessee and contribute to the economic pressure being applied to those states to change their laws.
As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told Oberlin College students in 1964: “The time is always right to do what’s right.”