Latter Day Protest? Proposition 8 and Sports

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 twenty-three 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 25th 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 6th, 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 attitudes of male athletes is more progressive than you might think). But women's sports has 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 oathletes choose to act, the ramifications could be "Beamonesque."

43 Reader Comments | Add a comment

racism and boycotts

Assuming that what you said is part of history, why not expand it to the Olympics? The Poles and Ukrainians hate the Jews as do the Russians....the Mexicans and Indians do not care for each other. There are a lot of injustices out there, not only in sports...and how is your mention of Mormon connected to Gay Rights? The latter cannot accomplish lifestyle equality by being adversarial.....I am not religious but if one whose faith does not believe in homosexuality, it is not for the lawyers to canon law is different from civil law...

Again, Thank You


Once again, you bring the voice of reason and compassion to an utterly un-truthed and uncouth communication enterprise. If it weren't for you, I'd have given up on sports journalism a long time ago. I've been following your columns for years. I peeped you out at Cody's a couple years ago over in Berkeley. I spoke on a panel about sports, religion and social justice last year: my colleagues and I referenced your work often. Usually I vibe with you, in particular, on anti-racist and gender activism within sports. But as a queer womyn, today, I am struck with gratitude for the multi-faceted and far-reaching nature of your work. You truly advocate for everyone on the margins. Thanks for keeping my community under your wings too.

Besides the occassional out-lgbt person and hir allies, the sports world reeks of homophobia. Even worse, the amount of closeted athletes in the world continues unnecessary projection-directed violence and down-low AIDS passing. I appreciate your willingness to offer up a different perspective as one who has less to lose (due to your heterosexual status). You continue to model the courage of a well-informed, active ally.

And to Jim above: we don't want lifestyle equality--whatever "lifestyle" means. Every person on this planet has a different life-style. We want the freedom to marry the people we love. Further, being adversarial is the only way justice actualizes for folks denied their rights. Door mats get trampled on. Activists get results (when they're lucky enough not to get shot). Dave made the connection between Mormons and gay rights, as is quite evident in his article, because Mormons have been the primary financial backers of anti-gay legislation and political field work.

Do yall know that Prop 8 was the most highly funded proposition in the history of state politics? Oh for the day when Christians care as much about the poor as they care about restricting sexuality...
May G-d save us from ourselves.

Valor en la lucha,

latter day protest

Thanks, Zirin, for this reminder of how protest used to work in this country: peaceful protest, foreceful, effective, yielding results. As it should be. But that was the 1960s. Still, mr Z, don't go on Imus to talk about your book. Boycott bigotry.
Great stuff, keep it up!

Your column xposted to Daily Kos

Though no avid sports fan, I do watch football, but the main reason I popped in here was because Chino Blanco cross-posted your column at Daily Kos.

I've often wondered just why it was Blacks were finally admitted to the LDS priesthood.

I think I've got my answer now.

Thanks, mightily, for this incredibly informative piece of sports history.

I sincerely hope we will see further progress in the LDS church in terms of women's and gay rights in the future.

Small Correction

Thanks for assembling this time line. Although I knew that BYU had been boycotted for institutionalized racism, I did not know the detail.

I may be wrong but my impression was that BYU's tax exemption rather than that of the Mormon Church was threatened since Bob Jones University had lost its tax exemption in 1976 over a prohibition of interracial dating.

Sigmund Young

oathlete [oth-leet]
a sports notable who subscribes to the notion of an athlete's "right of conscience."


It's my understanding that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops also funneled a hefty sum into defeating Prop. 8; Would athletes also boycott Notre Dame, Loyola and other Catholic institutions as well?


A question to Edmund--Why not?


A response to Dennis: exactly. To be consistent they should

Prop 8 and Sports

Excellent Dave, keep connecting the dots.


sgiving owing to You

I am amazed with it. It is a good thing for my research. Thanks

Important corrections in this article

Dave – My name is Clark Larsen and I live in Tooele, Utah. I am telling you this because I want to share some comments as though you and I were sitting face-to-face. I refuse to hide behind some silly, anonymous Internet name.

In your article, you mentioned several aspects of the LDS Church’s pre-1978 prohibition of blacks and the priesthood which a few of us know are simply inaccurate. I would like to explain, for a moment, these inaccuracies.

You said that by 1978, the IRS had, “…started to make noises about revoking the church's holy tax-free status.”

In reality, the IRS has always been carefully monitoring the LDS Church. Whenever LDS leaders have openly expressed opinions on issues from abortion, to gambling, to the Equal Rights Amendment, numerous lawyers, accountants and activists have looked into the LDS Church to see if they are following the law. In every case, the LDS Church has stayed within the rules of a tax exempt church.

As you mentioned, there was pressure placed on the LDS Church to change its prohibition, especially during the late 60’s. But by 1978, such pressure had not increased, but had considerably died down.

You said, “…a new revelation came to the Book of Mormon.”

The 1978 revelation had nothing to do with the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is a volume of LDS scripture. It is not a manual of church organization or a recording of specific church doctrines. There were no verses in the Book of Mormon either deleted or added to after 1978. There was however, an addition to another LDS book of scripture called the Pearl of Great Price. At the end you will find a section called “Official Declaration 2” which is simply the revelation, read LDS leaders in 1978, giving the priesthood to all worthy men, regardless of race or color.

You said, “Black people were now human in the eyes of the Church.”

With all due respect, Dave, this is a ludicrous comment. Nowhere in LDS teachings have blacks ever been considered or referred to as non-human. It is true that Brigham Young, at some point in his life, said negative things about the colored race. But if you simply dwell on those handful of comments, which are not considered official LDS doctrine, you’ll miss the fact that many LDS scriptures and teachings state the exact opposite. For example, in the Book of Mormon, there is a scripture, referring to Jesus Christ, which partly reads, “he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female. (2nd Nephi 26:33)

You said, “…$22 million used to pass the anti-gay marriage legislation was funneled through 59,000 Mormon families since August.”

This sounds like a clever way of saying the LDS Church was using its own money to fund Proposition 8, via the names of its own members. The fact is any contribution made by a member of the LDS Church, either in favor or against Proposition 8 was totally voluntary, and completely separate from the tithing or offering funds of the LDS Church.

Over the last couple of months, I have discussed the issue of same-sex marriage with several people on both sides of the debate. I personally find the most convincing arguments come from those who do not use intimidating words or character assassination in order to state their case.

If any athletes or coaches decide to boycott athletic events in Utah because of Proposition 8, that’s their prerogative. I just hope they don’t fall into using ignorance and hatred as a means of fighting against ignorance and hatred.

Keep Up The Power

I think you are thinking like sukrat, but I think you should cover the other side of the topic in the post too...


I must say that you provide genuine, quality information. Thanks for this!

BTW, dpn't you think your blog needs a better wordpress template?

You owe us all a rewrite on this one

I like your comments Dave, and I think you often say things that need to be said. But, Clark Larsen is exactly right. I think you got enough things wrong in this one to justify a complete re-write with MUCH better research. By getting this much wrong, you denigrate the protests of the Black 14 and the UTEP track team; they did something important, and you really messed-up the memory of it.

The Mormon prohibitions on blacks were really nothing more than holdovers from the racist attitudes that were held by virtually ALL American institutions -- and churches -- in the nineteenth century. The reason the Mormons were so slow to change as is that no one really cared much about challenging them. After all, it was "just the Mormons." After the policy changed in 1978, most blacks just shrugged and said, "No big deal."

The deeper truth is that Mormon doctrines prohibited them from supporting slavery and encouraged them to treat women with an unusual degree of suffrage and equality. That was the main reason the governor of Missouri ordered them to be driven from the state or exterminated in 1838. They actually had the audacity to be Christian church that embraced Christian ideals -- what a radical concept, eh? Brigham Young was a man of his times and his racist attitudes were rather tame in the era of routine lynchings and carpetbagger backlash.

Finally, you missed the real point of the Prop 8 fiasco: The Mormon Church was completely uninvolved with the whole thing until the Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco approached the Mormon leadership in Salt Lake and asked them to encourage California Mormons to get involved. Then, it was all the doing of the Mormons who live in California; Mormons in the state where I live didn't know anything about it until the vote became national news. And, the last time I checked, the Mormons in California still had a right to express an opinion and participate in the political process. I guess The Governator will have to order their extermination now, just like Governor Boggs did in 1838.


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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
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