35 years before Missouri, Northwestern athletes pushed for racial equality

By Shane Monaghan

Thirty-five years ago, in the basement of football player Ben Butler’s house on the South Side of Chicago, a plan was cemented to address how African-American athletes were treated at Northwestern University.

In a place that for many of them had become a home away from home and with all but one African-American member of the football team there, Black Athletes United For the Light (BAUL) was born.

“We felt that there was unequal treatment, but we felt like there was a historical context to that, as well,” says then-football player and BAUL founding member Joe Webb. “We felt that other athletes that had come before us also had unfair expectations put on them.”

Their plan led to 31 athletes uniting under the BAUL banner. The majority were football players, but the group would come to include members of the men’s and women’s basketball teams.

In the fall of 1980, BAUL marched into the office of Vice President of Student Affairs Jim Carleton and presented him with allegations that  detailed the unequal treatment of African-American athletes.

Don Johnson (36) and Mike Cammon (33), both members of BAUL during game action (Photo by Bob Draznik/ Courtesy of Joe Webb)
Don Johnson (36) blocks for Mike Cammon (33) during game action. Both were members of BAUL. (Photo by Bob Draznik/ Courtesy of Joe Webb)

Their efforts would become at least part of why Northwestern fired  athletic director John Pont and head coach Rick Venturi later that year.

“I think BAUL was a seminal moment,” says Dana Hemphill, a BAUL member and one of the Big Ten’s first African-American quarterbacks. “The fight we fought was critical to the future and quality of our lives and for those who followed us at NU.”

Thirty-five years later, the University of Missouri football team took a stand of its own on racial issues. In early November, it decided to boycott practices and games after a series of incidents aimed at African-American students. The university president, Tim Wolfe, resigned as a result of the protests.

Missouri’s boycott and BAUL’S pursuit were both part of a larger legacy of athletes taking stands against perceived racial injustice.

The 1980 players involved with BAUL  wanted to ensure accountability by coaches and medical staff  for proper injury protocol, increase transparency in recruiting, have more autonomy in choosing classes, and increase communication among all members of the athletic department about punishment and dismissals for players.

Their proposal was meant to achieve equality, but it did not contain a reference to black or white. It was meant to help improve conditions for all student-athletes.

While BAUL targeted better conditions for athletes, the Missouri players were standing up for something bigger than themselves as part of a campuswide movement. By comparison, BAUL’s efforts were similar to the unionization effort mounted by Kain Colter and the Northwestern football team over the previous two seasons.

Washington Post Magazine editor/writer Marcia Davis, who wrote about BAUL as a Daily Northwestern reporter,  sees all of this showing the power of athletes on college campuses.

“This conversation is on a continuum. You see that conversation continuing to grow,” Davis says. “You see that all culminating at the University of Missouri. It crystallized something that has been an ongoing struggle for a long time.”

BAUL: The Full Story

In 1980, Apartheid and divestiture and funding for African-American student initiatives were of great concern for Northwestern athletes who were both politically active and intellectually curious, according to Webb.

Webb also said there were times when the climate on campus could be polarizing.

“You felt a segregated feeling when you came on the campus of Northwestern,” says then-football player and  BAUL member Don Johnson. “I don’t think there was any overt racism, but you did feel that.”

At the beginning of the decade, Northwestern football was in the worst stretch in school history. Third-year head coach Rick Venturi and the Wildcats were coming off of just one victory in two seasons and on the way to another winless season.

Coaching decisions at the time made the African-American members of the team feel they were having a different experience from their white teammates.

Allegations reported by the Daily Northwestern included pressuring players to return from injury before ready, dismissing African-American players from the team for minor offenses, Venturi saying he wished he could get rid of the entire senior class of African-American athletes, and reprimanding African-American players for showing emotion and celebrating on the field. Venturi denied any allegations of racism and declined to comment for this story.

“Some of the negative things were being placed on the African-American players,” says Johnson. “I do not know if it was racially motivated. It seemed that way at the time by the players. It was happening to the African-American players, and you did not really see it happening to the white players.”

In 1979, Webb says, the coaches tried to get him to return from knee surgery before he was fully ready. Because he wouldn’t, he claims, the coaches made him pick up garbage around the field and told him he had to earn his scholarship somehow.

“That really got a lot of people (on the team) angry,” says Johnson. “Those kind of things made you wonder why they were punishing him in that way.”

In the fall of 1980, Hemphill was dismissed from the team. Hemphill says the coaches tried to justify it by citing an incident when he closed his eyes “for a short bit” during a late-night film session. He feels the coaches ultimately wanted him gone because he questioned the way they ran the team as losses piled up.

BAUL members at the family home of Ben Butler. Back- Joe Webb, Dana Hemphill, Tim Hill, Ben Butler Front- Mark Adams, Don Johnson (Photo Courtesy of Joe Webb)
BAUL members at the family home of Ben Butler. The idea for BAUL was first concieved in the basement of Butler’s home. Back- Joe Webb, Dana Hemphill, Tim Hill, Ben Butler Front- Mark Adams, Don Johnson (Photo Courtesy of Joe Webb)

As incidents continued, the players turned to two places of refuge— the family home of Ben Butler (who died in 2011)  and the iconic headquarters of African-American Student Affairs at Northwestern, the Black House.

“The Black House was a place of safety for many students,” says Alice Palmer, associate dean of African-American Student Affairs at the time. “It was a place where extraordinary ideas and things came out.”

Palmer said Black House staff members worked hard to make it a vibrant place. From Sunday suppers to intimate concerts to guest speakers, their goal was to have it be both another home and a place where students could be intellectually challenged.

With the aid of Palmer and administrator Ulysses ‘Duke’ Jenkins, the players decided to submit their grievances and a proposal of changes to the administration.

Over the preceding months, Palmer had witnessed the players formulate their argument in the Black House living room. She was with the BAUL members as they presented their case to Carleton.

“It was cogent. It was rational. It was respectful,” she says now of their presentation. “They had integrity. They understood that it was necessary for them to stand up.”

“We knew there were going to be consequences,” says Hemphill. “We did not know whether it was going to be us or if it was going to be the coaching staff. It felt like an uneasy, dangerous time for us.”

When news of the grievances first came out, Venturi denied all allegations.

Rick Venturi's character was questioned after BAUL's grievances became public (Article by Roger Phillips, Daily Northwestern/ Courtesy of Northwestern Archives)
Rick Venturi’s character was questioned after BAUL’s grievances became public (Article by Roger Phillips, Daily Northwestern/ Courtesy of Northwestern Archives)

“The accusations from a racial standpoint are simply not true,” Venturi told the Chicago Tribune a few days after the grievances became public.

When a published report indicated Venturi might have used a racial slur to address African-American players on the practice field, Venturi told the Chicago Tribune, “That’s just not true. They know that. I wouldn’t use that word in the privacy of my own home let alone on a public football field. They may think I’m crazy. But they know I’m not a racist.”

Many of the white players on the team rushed to support their head coach over BAUL’S allegations. According to the Daily Northwestern, they said the claims were made by upset seniors who had lost their starting spots.

Several of the white players also issued a statement that said, “We would like to state that the people who filed the list of grievances about the Northwestern football program are wrong. They are a small group of frustrated athletes that are blowing out of proportion events which occur on every team to players of every race, creed or color on every level of football. The list of grievances contain slanderous statements and out-and-out lies intended to destroy the character of the coaching and medical staff of the Wildcat football team.”

BAUL spokesperson and Wildcats football player Michael Cammon told the Daily Northwestern.“This is not an attack on our white teammates.”  Later, Cammon and fellow BAUL member Tim Hill quit the team.

Marcia Davis said she remembers anger from some members of the community that the African-American players had said anything at all.

“Rather than the idea that we need to look at the issues, people were concerned with accusing the (African-American) players of being inaccurate,” Davis said.

In a Daily Northwestern column at the time, she wrote, “The problems of race in this country, be it on the football field or in the classroom, are much deeper than the actions of one man.”

After the final game of the 1980 regular season, Venturi told the Chicago Tribune, “There hasn’t been much sleep in the last five weeks. But there have been a lot of tears.”

With an overall record of 1-30-1 in three seasons, Venturi was fired, along with Pont, by university President Robert Strotz.

According to an Associated Press report at the time, Pont was asked if the team’s problems became and black-white issue.  “To a degree, I am sorry to say,” he said. “It became that.”

Venturi went on to be an assistant coach for multiple NFL teams and had a brief stint as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. He currently appears on multiple broadcast outlets in Indianapolis.

Dennis Green was hired to replace Venturi. He was the first African-American head coach in the history of the Big Ten.

35 years later

Webb, Johnson and Hemphill look back on the time period with a sense of measured perspective. They are proud of how they fought to improve conditions for African-American athletes at Northwestern, but realize there may have been moments when they did not fully understand the intentions of others.

“I think the lesson to be learned from BAUL is that a group can affect change by being factual. By being informed.”

-Alice Palmer, former associate dean of African-American Student Affairs at Northwestern

“It is something that stays with you for life — both the good and the bad parts,” said Johnson, who currently owns a sports-performance business aimed at training youth football and works as a high school sports commentator for Comcast in the Chicago area.

“I think back on it all the time, and I question whether or not what we did was the right thing because I was concerned about those people’s families,” said Hemphill, who now works for Bank of America in Atlanta. “But on the other side, we had an opportunity to make a difference, to make a change, to make lives better cause that is part of what they should have been there for.”

Webb said he appreciates what Venturi was going through as a 34-year-old first-time head coach in 1980 trying to manage responsibilities and expectations at a major institution.

“He got pegged as this insensitive white guy who did not care about black people,” Webb says. “He was a good man, with a good heart, and good intentions, but he could only do what the sum of his experiences gave him to work with. He was a casualty of this whole situation.

“One of the big differences between the Missouri thing and BAUL is that we did not include our white teammates. In retrospect, that was a huge mistake. We didn’t give them the benefit of the doubt to trust that they would have understood our situation. Maybe they wouldn’t have, but we never gave them that chance.”

Johnson agrees.

“I think the difference between the Missouri group and us is that the Missouri group stood together as a complete team,” Johnson says. “You had the white players behind it, too. When there is a unified front there is a different sensibility, but if there isn’t that, it tends to run a division between the team.”

The late Ben Butler (back row) was a key spokesperson for BAUL during the 1980 season (Courtesy of Joe Webb)
The late Ben Butler (back row) was a key spokesman for BAUL during the 1980 season (Courtesy of Joe Webb)

The Friday after protests by students and the football team at Missouri, current Northwestern students held their own protest, partly in a show of support for Missouri. They included appeals for university officials to halt plans to restructure the Black House. It began at the front steps of the Black House — right outside the living room where BAUL conceived of its plans, 35 years earlier.

“I think the lesson to be learned from BAUL is that a group can affect change by being factual. By being informed,” said Palmer, now retired after stints as an Illinois state senator and administrator at University of Illinois-Chicago.

Since his time as an undergraduate, Webb has gone on to work extensively as a diversity consultant. At one point, he was Northwestern’s director of undergraduate admissions and financial aid for minority students — a role he would have considered on the “sellout side of the equation” when he was a student. He said his time as an administrator made him realize things are not always what they seem to be, but that does not downplay any desire by African-American students to have equal treatment.

“As a former black student-athlete, Black Lives Matters, minority students across this country, we all were/are desiring the same thing,” he says, “and that’s not special treatment, but equal treatment, both perceived and realized, through our collective experiences.”

Photo at top: Members of BAUL wanted to improve conditions for all athletes at Northwestern. (Photo by Suzie Pritchard/ Courtesy of Donald Johnson)