Last Friday marked the 50th anniversary of the Loyola (Chicago)-Mississippi State NCAA regional semi-finals game played at Jenison Field House in East Lansing, Mich. on March 15, 1963. This week, “Sports Odds and Ends” features an “Another View” column originally published in the MSR April 30, 2009 edition on the contest called the “Game of Change.”
Many believe that the 1966 Texas Western men’s basketball team with five Black starters, who defeated an all-White Kentucky squad for that year’s national title, cemented integration in college sports. But actually, a game played three years earlier poured the final mixture, so to speak.
An all-White Mississippi State team played Loyola, with four Black starters, in the1963 NCAA Mideast Regional in East Lansing, Michigan. Although it was in the final throes of racial segregation, Jim Crow in the South still was a “24-hour way of life,” where it was generally the rule that no White team would play any team with a Black player on the floor, let alone four.
However, determined to participate in post-season play, the Mississippi State team quietly slipped out of Mississippi to play Loyola, despite protests from state and law enforcement officials, including that state’ governor. Mississippi State lost to Loyola, who went on to win the 1963 NCAA championship.
Many believe the Loyola-Mississippi State contest forever changed the landscape of college hoops, especially in terms of integration, diversity and social change in sports. The game was chronicled in the documentary The Game of Change.
The NCAA Diversity and Inclusion office sponsored an invitation-only film screening (actually, it was a brief snippet) during Final Four weekend at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. I later saw the excellent one-hour film the next day at a downtown Detroit theater.
Is college basketball today fully integrated? Yes, there are rarely, if any, all-White teams today, but “images, perception and definitions” on Black athletes exist as much today as they did 40 years ago or more, according to Dr. Harry Edwards, University of California Berkeley professor emeritus of sociology. Edwards was part of a star-studded April 5 panel at the Wright Museum that discussed the film and related topics.
“The history of this whole struggle indicates that time is neutral in these kinds of circumstances when you have long-entrenched, longstanding, deeply rooted exclusion that had become institutionalized,” argued Edwards, adding that it takes outstanding courageous individuals to stand up for change.
Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Russell quickly noted, “When I was in college [in the late 1950s], all the Black players were treated like ‘We are letting you play. We don’t have to motivate you, coach you or anything after.’” Although things today are different for Black athletes, Russell surmised that still, “The folks making the decision on how they are perceived generally are not Black.”
New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden said that many of today’s generation truly believe that integration always has existed. “It occurred to me that there is a generation of Black kids who have grown up at a time when the NBA was always 80 percent Black, and the NFL always was 70 percent Black. The NCAA today looks like you are watching the SWAC [Southwestern Athletic Conference, made up of Historically Black Colleges and Universities].”
Still, former University of Alabama basketball coach C.M. Newton pointed out, “It was a tremendous experience for me to see [Black] kids from Alabama high schools come to their state university and not have to go somewhere else to play, and play basketball at the highest level.”
Integration and diversity in sports were then and continue today to be complicated issues to tackle. This also can be said about women athletes being seen equally, especially by the male-dominated and narrow minded sporting public.
“It has not been as dramatic as we saw in the [film] trailer, [but] it has been a journey nonetheless,” said WNBA founding President Val Ackerman, dismissing any comparison to what Blacks went through in achieving equality.
When asked how much Title IX, passed by Congress in 1969 to prohibit racial and gender discrimination, has helped women’s sports, Ackerman noted, “I think there are still great strides to be made — I continue to believe strongly that the sky is the limit.”
“We are a sexist society,” Edwards concurred. “[Men] don’t respect women in a sports context. Until we deal with that issue of respect, that issue of full human athletic status for women…this ties into the perception of whether women can be effective [as athletes].”
Finally, the panelists concluded that changes were inevitable, but it’s never easy. “When these changes [do] come, the former participants and the people who have been running things are very resistant to change,” Russell concluded.
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