September 5 marked what would have been the start of USC football’s 2020 season. The Trojans were slated to play the University of Alabama at ATT Stadium in Dallas, Texas, and USC was looking to avenge the 52-6 beatdown the Crimson Tide inflicted on them in 2016. However, this past weekend marked something much bigger than a rematch –– the 50th anniversary of the two teams' first meeting.
In 1970, USC traveled to Tuscaloosa as the first fully racially-integrated team to ever face Alabama on their home turf. The Trojans expected to enter hostile territory against this traditional powerhouse in the deep south, where racism and segregation were ingrained in the culture.
But, according to USC professor Jeff Fellenzer, an expert in sports, business and media, the real shocker of that weekend was something no player had anticipated: the amount of local support the Trojans received upon arriving in Tuscaloosa.
As the USC bus rolled through predominantly Black neighborhoods near the stadium, local families stood on their front porches to watch the team drive by. Others swarmed the bus, expressing their awe and support of the Trojans.
To those fans, a fully integrated football team was a foreign concept. As such, “[the Trojans] were treated like heroes, like conquering heroes,” Fellenzer said.
While Alabama fans dominated the stadium, a huge number of Black fans outside the stadium, not allowed inside, were rooting for USC.
“It was like playing a home game,” sophomore running back Sam “Bam” Cunningham recently told Annenberg Media.
USC did not disappoint their newfound fan base.
The No. 3 Trojans defeated No. 16 Alabama 42-21. All six USC touchdowns were scored by Black players. Cunningham stole the show with 12 carries for 135 yards and two touchdowns in his first game ever for Southern Cal.
The prowess that the integrated cardinal and gold team showed on the field proved to college football fans in the deep south the necessity of allowing Black players on the team.
At the time, Cunningham did not know the impact his stellar performance that day would have not only on college football but on segregation in the south as a whole.
In fact, there was hardly any media coverage immediately following this monumental game. It was played nine years before the dawn of ESPN and it wasn’t until John Papadaikas, a close friend and teammate of Cunningham’s, told the story in his 2006 book “Turning of the Tide” that the story became widely known.
The impact was so deep, though, that former Alabama assistant coach, Jerry Claiborne, noted that “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes that night than Martin Luther King had accomplished in 20 years.”
Since that monumental game and the integration of collegiate athletics in Alabama, the university has gone on to win 12 National Championships, cementing themselves as a perennial college football powerhouse. Also, during that time, Alabama has produced two Heisman Trophy winners. Mark Ingram was awarded College Football’s greatest individual honor in 2009, and Derrick Henry followed with the award in 2015. Both players are Black.
It’s never been confirmed whether or not Alabama head coach at the time, Bear Bryant, anticipated the impact this game would have.
The NCAA allowed teams to schedule an 11th game during the 1970 season. As is so often the case, especially back then, scheduling college football games is rooted in relationships. Alabama head coach Bear Bryant and USC head coach John McKay had a strong relationship, and so Bryant invited McKay to bring his Trojans to Tuscaloosa.
The prominence of Alabama football seemingly made Bryant the second-most-powerful person in the state of Alabama behind Gov. George Wallace, indicating the coach had the power to enact social change. But still, Bryant did not try to overstep his bounds or push the parameters, he just stuck to football. “I think his heart was in the right place of wanting change but he tried to do it within the system,” Fellenzer said.
This could have been Bryant’s way of showing, rather than telling, the Alabama fan base that in order to stay competitive, the team would need to be able to recruit from a larger pool of both Black and white players.
Alabama did have one Black player on its roster. But, he was a freshman, and in 1970, freshmen were not eligible to play. So, while Alabama was on a path towards integration, sometimes it takes these types of “seminal moments” as Fellenzer put it, for real and tangible change to come. This game greatly accelerated the Alabama football team’s integration and acceptance of Black players as an integral part of any sports team.
“Nothing really changed except that [Black players] were accepted in those programs because of their talent at that time,” Cunningham said. “Your viewpoints about segregation or racism don’t change in 60 minutes of a game.”
While fans in the south began to recognize the value of Black athletes for their contributions on the field, that doesn’t mean they valued those same players as human beings.
“I truly believe that the white folks still thought about Black folks the same way,” Cunningham said. “But because football is so important to them, they allowed those men to be a part of the program.”
This meant that in the following years, as more young Black men joined the Alabama team, Bryant had to be particularly supportive of their families and assure them that he would protect their sons on his team, Cunningham said.
50 years later, that problem still exists. Current USC junior tailback Ben Easington recalled a quote he heard recently: “It’s everywhere and nowhere.” Racism does not exist everywhere in the south, but it also exists outside of the south. For example, there are places in California where Confederate flags are prevalent, despite the state never being a member of the Confederacy.
It also exists in less overt ways, even in stereotypically liberal states like California. “They could be right next to you and they just don’t want to say it or expose themselves because the norm is don’t expose yourself,” Easington said.
In 2020, social justice movements are perhaps more prevalent in sports now than ever before. The United States is facing what some consider to be a second great civil rights movement. Most recently in the sports world, many professional athletes went on strike following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. “Why should black athletes put on entertainment for a country that doesn’t value them?” sports analyst Jamele Hill noted in a column for The Athletic.
Easington acknowledges that not everybody has the kind of platform that professional athletes do. But “if you have a platform, you should try and use it,” Easington said. “However big it is, it’s important that everybody tries –– if they’re willing.”
Easington is a member of both USC’s Black Lives Matter Action Team and the United Black Student-Athletes Association. Most recently, the Black Lives Matter Action team has focused on a voter registration drive while UBSAA has organized and distributed care packages to homeless or disenfranchised people in the lost Angeles area.
Cunningham echoes the sentiment that athletes, using both their platforms and their reputations, can make their voices heard.
The best way to make your voice heard, Cunningham said, is to go play football. “Don’t try to manipulate the game,” he said, “you just go play football or you go play baseball or you go play basketball, you go play whatever sport you have.”
Players today have an opportunity to be more vocal about civil rights issues and things that happen both publicly and privately.
“You represent your family, you represent the game and you represent the integrity of the game,” Cunningham said. Then when you talk, “people will appreciate what you’re saying because of how you go about playing.”
In other words, what you say and how you play go hand in hand.
“As a player, if I go back 50 years, I was 20 years old,” Cunningham said. “Did I ever anticipate being a part of something so special? No. You play because of your love of the game and that’s when things –– special things –– happen.”