The Buckeye Pledge: A Pledge or Waiver of Liability?

For the year 2018, the Ohio State University’s athletic department generated $205,556,663.00 in revenue,[1]$110,000.000.00 from the football program alone.[2]The revenue from football amounted to more than a $20 million, a 23%, increase from the 2017 season,[3]and a $42 million, or 47%, increase from the 2013 season.[4]This is not all profit however, as there are significant expenses associated with to fielding a Division I football team. 

First, there is the cost of the 85 student-athlete scholarships that are paid out of the football team’s annual budget to the University every year. The cost of tuition at Ohio State averages, for out-of-state students, around $32,000.00 per year.[5]That amount, multiplied by the number of Buckeye players ‘on scholarship’ cost the Ohio State football program an average of $2.7 million a year. In addition, there are facility expenses, travel and recruiting costs, of course coaches, trainers, and the football staff need to be paid, and medical expenses.  Medical expenses?  Yes, the Ohio State athletic department pays out approximately $1.47 million in medical expenses for all of its Division I athletic teams annually – less than 1% of its annual revenue.[6] But, in the time of a global pandemic, medical expenses can be a complicated and problematic issue. Therefore, the Ohio State University athletic department has ‘asked’the 85 members of the football program to be ‘team players’ and assist the University in the fight against COVID 19 by swearing to do everything they can to help combat its spread. The athletic department has even given it an amusing name –The Buckeye Pledge.

The Ohio State Buckeye Pledgeinvites its football team to “help stop the spread of COVID-19” and accept the fact that he, as a student at Ohio State, may be exposed to COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. Within this two-page electronic document, the student-athlete agrees to testing and potential self-quarantining, to monitor for symptoms, to report any potential exposure in a timely manner, and to practice Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines such as wearing a mask and practicing social distancing.  Additionally, and without question, the player, along with his parent(s), are required to sign the Pledgebefore returning to campus for voluntary workouts, workouts which began on June 8, 2020.  If the player and/or his parent(s) fail in signing or complying with my Buckeye Pledge, the student-athlete could immediately be removed from any and all athletic participation privileges and forfeit the use of any of the campus’ athletic facilities.

“That’s why we call it a pledge,” Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith stated. “We don’t look at that as a legal document. It’s a Buckeye Pledge.Allow us to help you so that if we face a situation, our trainers, our strength coaches, our coaches or any athletic administrator sees a student-athlete not wearing a mask or not social distancing, we can say, ‘Hey, you made a commitment. You signed a pledge. Your parents signed a pledge. Your parents are a part of this.'” “You’ve got to make a commitment,” Smith said. “If you’re going back to your apartment, with your roommates or by yourself or whatever, or if you choose to go out and have dinner somewhere now that places are reopening, you need to wear a mask. You need to social distance. We’re hammering our kids on that concept. Social distancing is the biggest challenge we’ve been having. They’re kids. They want to be close to one another.”

It is interesting to note, however, that according to this Buckeye Pledge, the athletes and their parents must accept the fact and understand that COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus and that it is possible that the athlete to catch the disease even if safety precautions recommended by the CDC, local health department, and others are followed.  In addition, the student-athlete must understand and acknowledge that he can never be completely shielded from all risk associated with COVID-19 or any other infectious diseases, while a member of the Ohio State football team or as a student at the University.[7]This section, the second to the last paragraph of the Buckeye Pledge, is the troubling part since the student-athlete may or may not understand is that this paragraph changes the Buckeye Pledgefrom that of just a pledge, to that of an assumption of risk and perhaps a waiver of liability. Yes, by signing the Buckeye Pledge the athletes are assuming all risk and may be waiving any rights or recourses against the University regarding issues surrounding COVID-19 or ‘other infectious diseases’.

See, this Buckeye Pledge,or waiver of liability, is, for all intents and purposes, a legally binding contract between the athlete and the University, especially since the student-athlete’s parents are also required to be signatories.  By signing thePledge, the student-athlete may unintentionally or unknowingly agree that Ohio State University, together with its coaches, trainers, medical staff and employees, are to be held harmless, and therefore not legally responsible for any and all negligent or reckless actions or deeds committed by Ohio State or its employees associated with COVID-19 or other infectious diseases – whatever they may be.

It is important that the student-athlete and his parents know, however, that laws regarding waivers vary widely by state, and interestingly, the State of Ohio does not recognize the validity of all forms or types of liability waivers. The law of Ohio requires that waivers are to be strictly construed against the drafter, in this case the University, if the language shows any ambiguity.  More importantly, however, the student-athlete may seek rescission of the contract if the terms of such are considered unconscionable, which, under Ohio law, means “the absence of meaningful choice on the part of one of the parties to a contract, combined with contract terms that are unreasonably favorable to the other party.”[8]  

The athlete also has a reasonable argument that he did not have a ‘meaningful choice’ as to whether or not to sign the Buckeye Pledgesince failing to do such meant that he faced the possibility of ‘immediately being removed from any and all athletic participation privileges and forfeited the use of any athletics facilities.’[9]In essence, what the student-athlete was faced with was a Hobson’s Choice – whether you will have this or none.  In addition, the deadline for the student-athlete to sign the Buckeye Pledge, June 8th, was purposeful since, per NCAA rules, if a school plans on not renewing a student-athlete’s scholarship, it must notify the athlete in writing by July 1st.[10] Since in most cases the coaches decide who receives a scholarship and whether or not it will be renewed, it is not a far leap to believe that if the athlete did not sign the waiver by the deadline, he faced not having a scholarship at the end of the month.

But what of this word unconscionable? The word by definition means – shockingly unfair or unjust. The fact that the Ohio State University athletic department and its Athletic Director Gene Smith[11]feel it is in the best interest of both the University and its student-athletes to shift any and all liability it may have as an institution for any negligent or reckless acts regarding COVID-19, onto the student-athletes is without question unfair.  To shift the burden onto the backs of the young men who perform each and every Saturday during the fall months in front of hundreds of thousands of fans, the ones that help in generating over $110,000,000 annually for the athletic department, the ones who are not compensated more than the value of an athletic scholarship that could be taken away at any time or for any reason by an unhappy coach or athletic administrator, is the very meaning of unjust. 

And what about the NCAA?  How is any of this in the best interest of the student-athlete? How is Ohio State’s Buckeye Pledgein accordance with and in the spirit of NCAA Article 2.2 which reads – Intercollegiate athletic programs shall be conducted in a manner designed to protect and enhance the physicaland educational well-being of the student-athletesand Article 2.2.3 which reads – it is the responsibility of each member institution (which Ohio State is) to protect the health of, and provide a safe environment for, each of its participating student-athletes?

In addition, isn’t it the NCAA’s duty and obligation, that if its member institution fails in doing so, to protect the student-athlete from exploitation.  The Buckeye Pledgeis the epitome of exploitation and mistreatment of a student-athlete at the hands of the Ohio State’s athletic department and the NCAA needs to do what is right by its student-athletes and force Ohio State to repeal and rescind such a Pledge.


[1]Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

[2]Colombo, Hayleigh, Countdown: Ohio State Sports That Bring in the Most Revenue, and Post the Biggest Losses, Columbus Business First, October 5, 2019.

[3]Id.

[4]Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

[5]Ohio State University website

[6]Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

[7]Specific language used in the Buckeye Pledge: “I understand COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus and it is possible to develop and contract the COVID-19 disease, even if I follow all of the safety precautions above and those recommended by the CDC, local health department, and others. I understand that although the university is following the coronavirus guidelines issued by the CDC and other experts to reduce the spread of infection, I can never be completely shielded from all risk of illness caused by COVID-19 or other infections.”

[8]Pruitt vs. Strong Style Fitness, 2011 WL 4842485.

[9]The Buckeye Pledge.

[10]NCAA.org.

[11]Gene Smith’s annual salary equals $1,000,000 annually, plus $420,000 in supplemental compensation for media and other responsibilities.  He is also eligible for up to $130,000 in annual bonuses.

NASCAR Decides to Ban Confederate Flags – How is this still a thing? 

On April 9, 1865, over 155 years ago, the traitor known as Robert E. Lee surrenderedto General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Yes, for some it may be hard to believe, but the Confederate States lost the Civil War – it surrendered, yielded, resigned, gave up, quit, came in second out of two. The turncoat and collaborating Confederate army, the one that turned its back on its own nation, pitted brother against brother, decided to tuck its tail between it legs, threw up its hands, waved the white flag of defeat, and went home. See, that is one thing we all need to remember, the Confederacy lost, and all those who fought on its behalf, were traitors to the United States of America.

 Interestingly though, the flag flown by the traitorous Confederate army wasn’t the one known as the ‘rebel flag’ or the ‘southern cross’ that has been flying over NASCAR events and SEC football games for the last seventy years. That ‘flag’ has no association with the so called “Confederate Southern Heritage’.  The original Confederate flag, the ‘stars and bars’, went through three different variations during the Civil War, but the ‘current rendition’ wasn’t one of them. That ‘current rendition’ was rejected as an official emblem and only came to be associated with the Confederacy long after of the Civil War.

In 1948, almost 100 year after Appomattox, the segregationist group known as the Dixiecrats, the political party whose slogan was ‘Segregation Forever’, adopted the ‘southern cross’ as its symbol. In the following years, it became an even more important part of the segregationist movement and was featured prominently on the 1956 redesign of Georgia’s state flag, a legislative resolution that was in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. So, it is without question, nor is it debatable, that the ‘southern cross’ or the ‘rebel flag’ or whatever you want to call it, is nothing less than a symbol of racism, prejudice, discrimination, hate, and segregation. And if you need further proof, the flag in its current version is commonly associated with white supremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

So why are we now, as sports fans, in 2020, applauding NASCAR for banning the flag at all of its events and properties.  NASCAR, as a U.S. company that has been around, coincidentally, since 1948, should have banned this icon of racism, segregation, and hate years ago.  But, finally, in 2020, the racing organization has decided that the presence of the flag “runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and industry.””Bringing people together around the love of racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sports special.”  My question is – “What took you so long?”  NASCAR should not be applauded for its recent decision – it should be shamed for taking so long to come to such decision.

Additionally, for those who are no longer willing to attend or support NASCAR because of its long overdue position, you, the Confederate flag wavers, are the current traitors to this country. That flag is a symbol of systemic racism that has plagued this country for over a hundred years, it is hate speech in its purist form. That flag, and what it symbolizes, has no place in these UNITED STATES, not at a NASCAR race, an SEC football game, NOWHERE!

The International Olympic Committee Bans Political Statements at the Games – Again, the IOC is on the Wrong Side of History

During the 2016 season, one-time professional quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, sparked a national argument by ‘taking a knee’ during the ritual playing of the national anthem before every National Football League game. Kaepernick’s symbolic, unspoken protest was a way for him to create awareness of various social issues surrounding the continued subjugation in this country of black people and other people of color.  After the end of the 2016 season, however, Kaepernick became a free agent, and has remained unsigned ever since, even though his body of work compares favorably to various quarterbacks who have secured positions with other NFL franchises. In all actuality, Kaepernick was ‘blackballed’ by NFL owners because of the attention he brought to the forefront regarding social injustices that still prevail and plague the United States some fifty years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

 But Kaepernick is not the only athlete, or in some cases group of athletes, who has been ‘punished’ by the predominately white-male sport hierarchy after speaking out on issues regarding race and basic civil rights. Throughout the modern history of sport, athletes such as Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the Syracuse 8, the University of Wyoming Black 14, Craig Hodges, and Serena Williams (to name only a few), have had their athletic careers negatively affected, and in some cases ended entirely, by the sport establishment when they decided to speak openly about various social injustices that disproportionally affect people of color.

Since most of the above-named athletes are now celebrated as trailblazers, being held in the highest regard, why is the International Olympic Committee still on the wrong side of history and instituting stricture rules to warn and punish athletes who use their platform to speak out on racial injustices.  Wouldn’t it seem sensible for the IOC to learn from the past, i.e. 1936 Games in Berlin, 1968 Power Salute, and ousted Israeli athletes Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett, and instead of punishing athletes, come to their support and partner with them in an effort to raise the overall social consciousness of our society? 

At a time when Roger Goodell and the predominately white male hierarchy of the NFL seem to be showing some indication that they are finally beginning to understand the issues surrounding social justice, the IOC is still hanging on to its old, racist, and archaic way of thinking.

Specifically, the IOC has now officially warned athletes not to participate in specific forms of political protest at the 2021 Summer Games in Tokyo. Forms of protest include, but are not limited to, kneeling, political hand gestures and wearing or holding signs or armbands. The IOC drafted a three page guideline to fortify Rule 50 of the International Olympic Charter,which states in part, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” “We needed clarity, and they wanted clarity on the rules,” Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe, chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission stated, “The majority of athletes feel it is very important that we respect each other as athletes.”

The guidelines specifically ban gestures like those of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Colin Kaepernick, and a number of others,[1]each of whom sought to draw attention to racial injustices that have been happening to various people of color throughout the world. In addition, not only are the athletes banned from demonstrating on the field of play, they are also barred at the Olympic Village, during medal ceremonies and during Opening and Closing Ceremonies.[2]

Now per the IOC, athletes who “protest” will face disciplinary action instead of receiving support and encouragement in creating awareness to a number of social issues and injustices that plague our society today.  Since numerous sport scholars and practitioners believe that sport serves as a conduit for advancing social change through values associated with democracy, justice, and human rights, the IOC, again, is on the wrong side of history.


[1]Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa crossed his wrists at the finish line of the men’s marathon at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro to show support for civil rights protesters in his home country. Americans Race Imboden, a fencer, and hammer-thrower Gwen Berry were placed on probation by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee in August after demonstrating on the medal stand at the Pan American Games. Imboden knelt during the national anthem, while Berry raised a fist.

[2]Note – The guidelines also apply to trainers, coaches and officials.

REEBOK AND ATHLETES CUT TIES WITH CROSSFIT OVER FOUNDER GREG GLASSMAN’S GEORGE FLOYD TWEET

Reebok and a number of Crossfit athletes are cutting ties with fitness firm CrossFit, after founder and CEO Greg Glassman controversially tweeted “It’s Floyd-19” in response to a tweet about racism being a public health issue.

Reebok ended its exclusive 10-year deal as a CrossFit sponsor and licensee of CrossFit apparel. The sportswear company stating: “Our partnership with CrossFit HQ comes to an end later this year. Recently, we have been in discussions regarding a new agreement, however, in light of recent events, we have made the decision to end our partnership with CrossFit HQ.”

Professional CrossFit athlete Rich Froning and four time CrossFit Games winner criticised Glassman’s comments to his 1.4 million Instagram followers, saying the last few days made it “impossible to stay loyal to leadership who make callous statements that alienate and divide in a time when unity is needed.”

CrossFit Games champion Tia-Clair Toomey said she was “incredibly saddened, disappointed and frustrated” at the company and Glassman, adding: “My future with Crossfit is unclear and depends on the direction of HQ.”

Other CrossFit Athletes including last year’s second place competitor, Noah Ohlsen, announced he would not compete in this year’s games.

CrossFit affiliate gym Rocket CrossFit, based in Seattle, said it will disaffiliate with the company, and in a blog post published a profanity-laden letter from Glassman that attacked the gym’s co-owner, Alyssa Royse, of trying to brand CrossFit as “racist”.

CrossFit games supplier Rogue Fitness, which provides strength training equipment to the event, said it would remove the CrossFit logo from this year’s event and will “work with CrossFit Games leadership to determinethe best path forward.”

Glassman sparked outrage on Sunday after referring to the death of unarmed black man George Floyd in police custody as ‘It’s FLOYD-19’. His tweet was a direct reply to a post from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that read: “Racism and discrimination are critical public health issues that demand an urgent response. #BlackLivesMatter.” Glassman later apologized on the CrossFit twitter page, saying: “I, CrossFit HQ, and the CrossFit community will not stand for racism. I made a mistake by the words I chose yesterday. My heart is deeply saddened by the pain it has caused. It was a mistake, not racist but a mistake.” As of Monday morning, Glassman’s original tweet on his personal account is still live.

CrossFit has stayed noticeably silent on Twitter and Instagram on the Black Lives Matter movement as a host of companies publicly took a stand on anti-racism following Floyd’s death. Interestingly though, CrossFit has previously pledged public support for the LGBT community, as well as dedicating its ‘Hero’ workouts to fallen soldiers.

Isabel Togoh

How Much are College Athletes’ Names, Images and Likenesses Worth?

INTERESTING READ – THOUGHT I WOULD SHARE:

While the impact of pending NCAA rules changes or new state laws cannot yet be calculated, a valuable marketplace already exists for student-athletes to monetize their Name, Image & Likeness (NIL) in the near future.

Social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter or YouTube are likely to be the first place athletes can go to create new value for themselves.

INFLCR created a multi-dimensional formula to assess athletes’ per-post value for branded content on social media. INFLCR’s formula takes into account a variety of factors beyond followers on social media, such as team performance, sport played, and size of the conference, and has been established to help athletes and other collegiate athletic programs understand the impact and opportunities that NIL may provide for their athletes.

Combining INFLCR’s approach each Instagram follower at $0.80, the NIL team also reviewed the potential annual advertising value for INFLCR partner Duke University, specifically the members of the 2019-20 Duke men’s basketball team.

2019-2020 Duke Men’s Basketball Roster: NIL Valuation

At the top, a star athlete such as freshman All-American Cassius Stanley, with a following of more than 513,000 on Instagram, had an estimated annual value on the platform of $410,720. This represents an audience that could command more than $15,000 per post, according to INFLCR’s formula, and would rank among the top 5 athletes in the NCAA, according to ADU.

ACC Player of the Year Tre Jones, with more than 385,000 combined followers across Instagram and Twitter, has an audience valued at more than $308,000.

At the bottom, a player having as few as 14,000 followers (but playing at a very high level in a big conference) could potentially command a rate of more than $400 per post on Instagram.

For players such as Stanley and Jones, these social followings will certainly have potential to be lucrative on the next level regardless of whether they are in college at the time of any potential rules changes.

The 14 players on the Duke roster had a combined Instagram following of 1,545,400 (tops in college basketball), an audience estimated at more than $1.2 million in annual advertising value.

The same players had a combined audience of 175,000 on Twitter, representing a cumulative audience value of more than $139,000.

Collectively this represents more than $1.3 million in value that could have been available to student-athletes on the Duke basketball team.

“For 95 percent of college athletes, their college careers will be the best time to grow and leverage their personal brands. Unless America knows you on a first-name basis like Zion or Kyrie, fan affinity and networking opportunity peaks in college,” said Duke men’s basketball Creative Director Dave Bradley.

“Therefore, it’s crucial for athletes to understand and maximize their brands from day one — and the best way to do this is through social media.  The potential changes coming to allow athletes a greater ability to capitalize on their name, image and likeness would only amplify the incredible importance of social media to a college athlete in any sport. Not just the Duke player with a bigger following than 75% of NBA guys.”

There is potential for significant revenue for top-line NCAA players, but the INFLCR review of Duke’s following found that even those players who have not yet established stardom on the court or large followings on social media could potentially create revenue opportunities for themselves.

How Athletes Will Develop Their Social Media Valuation

As the NIL landscape evolves, these numbers make it clear that many athletes will arrive on their college campuses with a potential value already established. Moving onto the stage that is collegiate athletics, within the team brand they represent, will add value to their audience and increase their opportunity to both grow their follower count and their bank account. 

For others, the spotlight of college athletics will provide the opportunity to exponentially grow their following after they arrive on campus. A follower total of a few hundreds can grow quickly for an athlete when they sign with a college as a recruit, or begin to make plays and gain more notoriety on the field of court.

“As social media has evolved, athletes have been empowered with their own media channels,” said INFLCR founder and CEO, Jim Cavale. “And the current generation of student-athletes have embraced their social media platforms to a degree that will afford them many new opportunities that athletes before them never had.”

Of course, it isn’t enough to just have followers. To create maximum value in the market, the athletes must also be compelling storytellers. Authenticity and consistency are keys to success, says Cavale, whose platform INFLCR empowers 100+ NCAA teams like Duke to easily distribute content from team and national-media sources directly to the players’ phones in real time.

When Duke athletes leave the court, they find their phones stocked with content in their personalized galleries within their INFLCR app to tell the story of the big moments they create.

Cavale believes the best approach is to empower the athlete with a wide array of content to tell their own story in their own voice. Ninety percent [or more] of an athlete’s social media posts should be organic or editorial storytelling with no monetization, meaning the other 10 [or so] percent of their social media posts provide a branded content opportunity between the athlete and endemic brands, in the form of a paid endorsement campaign. These posts are much more powerful and authentic, within the context of the programming that athletes’ followers are accustomed to seeing, when the athlete is proactive on the editorial storytelling aspect of their social media.

Paid posts without this foundation of organic storytelling simply won’t be as effective, he says, and ultimately will not achieve maximum value for either the athlete or the brand he or she represents.

“An athlete’s ability to post and post often, with a variety of content that tells your story on the field or court and off of it, is essential,” Cavale says.

“This requires education to know how and when to weave your personal story into your social media channels, as well as real-time access to content that is being created around your story each day by your team’s media staff and other external media outlets. Posting a diversified set of storytelling content to your social channels, paves the way for the monetization of your social media posts with branded content.”

In essence, the landscape of social media becomes an opportunity to grow. Leveraging the spotlight to grow a personal brand becomes just another extension of their collegiate experience to develop — just like working out in the weight room, practicing on the field or court and taking care of their bodies with good training and nutrition.

INFLCR will continue reviewing the social media and NIL valuations for partners and other collegiate athletic programs, to help them prepare for future realities as the NCAA continues to unveil new recommendations and policies for review. 

Author: Tim Stephens. https://www.inflcr.com/2020/04/29/nil-valuation-duke-mens-basketball-name-image-likeness/

NCAA Approves Recommendations for College Athletes to Profit from Endorsements and Social Media

The NCAA took a significant step approving recommendations that allow student-athletes to receive income for third-party endorsements, as well as social media opportunities, other business ventures and personal appearances that fall within certain guidelines.

“Throughout our efforts to enhance support for college athletes, the NCAA has relied upon considerable feedback from and the engagement of our members, including numerous student-athletes, from all three divisions,” said Michael V. Drake, chair of the board and president of Ohio State University.

College athletes would be allowed to identify themselves by the school they attend and the sport they play, but would not be able to use conference or school logos or trademarks, the board said.

The board wants its recommendations to go into effect at the start of the 2021-22 academic year.

The Value of a Running Back – More than Just Yards from Scrimmage and Touchdowns.

Like everyone during this COVID-19 lockdown, I have been receiving numerous emails, Facebook posts, Twitter notifications, and Instagram hits from the various professional sport properties: NFL, MLB, NBA, etc.  These continued contacts are the various leagues’ way of keeping me and other fans engaged while the teams and athletes stay sidelined.  A recent Facebook post from the NFL was entitled “Every NFL Teams’ All-Time Leading Rusher”.  

Taking notice, I reminisced while reading the names of the great Walter Payton, leading rusher for the Chicago Bears, (2ndwith 16,726 yards), the Detroit Lions’ tough to tackle Barry Sanders (3rdwith 15,259 yards), crazy Al Davis’s Oakland/Los Angeles’ Marcus Allen (17thwith 8,545 yards) and the all-time great, Jim Brown whose yardage still tops the Cleveland Browns’ 60 years after his retirement (5thwith 12,312). There were other greats such as Larry Csonka (Miami Dolphins), Emmitt Smith (Dallas Cowboys), and Franco Harris (Pittsburgh Steelers), but one name, the last name on the list, made me raise an eyebrow.  Way down on the bottom, last, with only 5,453 yards gained for his team the New England Patriots, stood the name – Sam Cunningham. Yes, after all of these years, Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham was still the all-time leading rusher for the Patriots.  But even though his name was last on the NFL’s “Every NFL Teams’ All-Time Leading Rusher” list – his name is probably the most important.  Why?  Because Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham, together with the USC Trojans, transformed the game of college football.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the matter of Brown vs. Board of Education, overturned the long-standing ‘separate but equal’doctrine established in the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision and therefore symbolically ended an era of segregation known as ‘Jim Crow’.  Ten years later, taking a long overdue cue from the Court, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the purpose of ending public racial discrimination.  Interestingly, however, these federal holdings and laws did very little to persuade a number of southern colleges and universities to integrate, a number of which were members of the South Eastern Conference (SEC), and Jim Crow continued to be a significant part of college life and in particular, college athletics.

One university epitomized the attitude of the SEC. The University of Alabama, buried in the heart of the South, became the Flagship for Segregationin that it had rarely, if ever, accepted a person of color.[1]  In fact, then Alabama Governor George Wallace, in defiance of the Civil Rights Act, used his gubernatorial powers to keep many segregation laws in place, which included an attempt to ban all people of color from attending the University.  This ‘ban’ resulted in the entire student body, together with the entire football team, remaining predominately white throughout the 1960s. To make matters worse, the Crimson Tide football team wonnational championships in 1961, 1964, and 1965, so therefore they, the University and the people of Alabama, didn’t see the need to integrate.  Why should they, the thought being, when the football team was winning championships with all white teams?

A university on the west coast, however, had an entirely different perspective. The University of Southern California (USC) had diversified in the early 1920s and the football program had already featured black athletes for decades. In 1960, USC hired John McKay as its head coach. Teams under the leadership of Coach McKay went on to number one rankings in both 1962 and 1967, a Rose Bowl appearance in 1968, and an undefeated season and Rose Bowl win in 1969. As the fortunes of the USC Trojan football team continued to rise throughout the latter part of the1960s, those of the Crimson Tide where heading in a different direction.  After an 8-2 season in 1967, the teams went 8-3 (4-2 in the SEC) in 1968 and by1969, the University of Alabama endured a subpar season going 6-5 (2-4 in the SEC).  Calls to fire legendary coach, Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant, were heard from the Pensacola panhandle, all the way to Huntsville. Butwas the Tide’s decline because Bear Bryant lost his ability to coach college football, or was it because college football was passing the University of Alabama by because it and its State were stuck in their old, segregated, racist ways by not allowing Bryant to recruit talented black athletes to be part of the football team?  Before it was too late, Coach Bryant needed to find out.  

With the unsolicited help of the NCAA, who coincidentally changed the rules to allow its member institutions to play an 11-game season instead of the traditional 10, Coach Bryant got his chance.[2] Needing to find an ‘eleventh game opponent’, Coach Bryant stealthily contacted Coach McKay and offered him $150,000 to bring his diversified Trojan team to Tuscaloosa in the fall of 1970 to play his all-white Crimson Tide team in front of 70,000 all, or at least, mostly, white fans.[3] After some horse trading, and a promise by Coach Bryant to travel to southern California the following season to play USC on its home turf, an agreement was made.[4]What came of this agreement, however, forever changed the game of college football. 

The date, September 12, 1970, the USC Trojans lined up against the Crimson Tide in one of the first ever integrated college football games played on the University of Alabama’s turf.  Notably, Sam Cunningham, only a sophomore, was not the starting running back since the Trojans had what was considered a ‘crowded backfield’.  Senior running back Charlie Evans was given that privilege but after a couple of offensive plays Coach McKay put Cunningham into the game to test his skills against what was considered a high-caliber defense.  Cunningham rose to the occasion, annihilating the Tides’ defense by running for 135 yards and two touchdowns on only 12 carries, all while leading the Trojans to a 42-21 victory.[5]  Spectators stated that Cunningham exhausted the Tide’s defense both physically and mentally. 

More importantly, however, beyond what feats were accomplished on the playing field, Cunningham proved to the people of Alabama that athletes of color can compete at the highest level of college sport.  And not only compete, they can excel, or in this case, single handedly destroy.  He, together with his fellow USC teammates,[6]showed a racist fan base of Alabama that black and brown athletes have the skill, athleticism, and brains to compete against their white counterparts.

The USC Trojan victory on that September evening in 1970 was the catalyst for Coach Bryant and the University of Alabama, together with other colleges and universities throughout the SEC, to recruit and incorporate African-Americans and other people of color into its football programs. More importantly, it began to change the mindset, however slowly, of the Crimson Tide fans and as Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham himself stated years later, “What they saw was the future,” Cunningham said of the hushed, stunned Legion Field crowd. “Their team was eventually going to be integrated.”

So, the New England Patriots’ Sam Cunningham may be the last name on the NFL’s “Every NFL Teams’ All-Time Leading Rusher” list, but it is without question, that his name is number one on the list of most important running backs to ever play the game.  


[1]Autherine Lucy Foster enrolled in the University of Alabama in 1956. She first applied to the school in 1952, but her acceptance was rescinded because she was not white. Four years later, she became the first African American to attend a white school or university in the state of Alabama. Three days later, she was expelled.

[2]1970 was the first season the NCAA allowed member institutions to schedule 11 regular season games.  “Grid squads get 11 games” Spokesman-Review. (Spokane, Washington). Associated Press. January 15, 1970. p. 14

[3]Note – Alabama did have a black player on its team in 1970, freshman Wilbur Jackson.  However, Jackson did not suit up for this game because the NCAA, at that time, did not allow freshmen to play at the varsity level.

[4]There is a debate as to whether or not Coach Bryant got together with Coach McKay (a close friend) in order to show his fans the self-interested advantages of integration. Though it’s difficult to imagine Bryant was eager to schedule a loss to make a point, it is notable, however, that he would go on to win three national titles with integrated teams.

[5]In fact, the Trojans dominated in every aspect – its 559 total yards being nearly 300 more than Alabama’s output.

[6]The USC Trojans starting quarterback, Jimmy Jones, was/is a person of color.