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A gridiron legacy uncovered: How Northwestern football players risked it all for racial equality

Their story is buried deep in the university’s archives, but 40 years ago, a group of Northwestern athletes fought for what they believed in.

Courtesy of Mike Cammon

There weren’t many places where Black football players felt welcomed on Northwestern’s campus in the 1980s. They had the Black House and their teammate Ben Butler’s basement on the South Side of Chicago, and that was about it.

While football should have provided refuge from the frequent discrimination, isolation and racism they faced, it didn’t. And sometimes — especially during the 1980 season — it only made it worse.

“One of the things that became not only clear but oppressive was how separate the campus at large was,” said Joseph Webb, a sophomore running back on the 1980 team who is now retired from corporate human resources and business consulting. “If you were a Black student at Northwestern, you were already pushed out of the broader Northwestern community at large. The environment was hostile toward Black students, and we [as football players] were just a microcosm of what was going on at large.”

Despite the exclusion and isolation they faced, 20 Black football players took a stand 40 years ago and pushed for racial equality. Long before Iowa, Texas and dozens of other programs took action, athletes at Northwestern came together to form Black Athletes Uniting for the Light (BAUL) and demanded change after alleging racist treatment from their head coach Rick Venturi and his staff.

Their efforts led to history-altering decisions like personnel and policy changes, but their story is somehow lost in history, even though the events paved the way for thousands of Northwestern athletes and students to come.

It all started with a turkey.

In August 1979, Ben Butler, a sophomore on the team who passed away in 2011, invited a few of his Black teammates to his family’s home on Chicago’s South Side. He bought a turkey with the little money he had and asked his mother to cook it, in celebratory fashion. Players congregated in his basement, and that night, BAUL was born.

BAUL members would congregate in Ben Butler’s basement as well as the Black House.
Courtesy of Tim Hill

The idea for BAUL was conceived after a number of Black football players began to open up about their experiences on the team to one another. Webb and Butler as well as Tim Hill and Dana Hemphill were pairs of roommates at the time and began confiding in each other within the confines of their dorm rooms about the unfair treatment they felt they faced from the predominately white coaching staff.

“At first, we were all experiencing these nuances separately, which is why these conversations happening in our dorm rooms started validating one another,” Webb said. “That validation turned out to be consensus that the Black athletes were in fact experiencing things differently than our white colleagues.”

Hill, Hemphill, Webb and Butler, as well as a few others discussed some of the harsh realities they faced and knew something had to be done.

“We decided that we wanted to come together as brothers and protect one another,” Hemphill said, a quarterback on the team who now works as a senior vice president for Bank of America.

But that night, nobody in the room could’ve anticipated the history-altering actions and decisions which followed.

The players felt their mistreatment began with a coaching change. The founding members of BAUL had all been recruited under John Pont, the incumbent head coach since 1973. When Pont stepped into a new role as NU’s athletic director, his position was filled by Rick Venturi, a 34-year-old Northwestern graduate who had never been a DI head coach before, along with a team of inexperienced assistants.

With a new coach came change, as expected, but some of the changes the athletes simply could not accept — especially when they seemed targeted toward one group in particular.

“For me, what I saw was insensitivity, and it could’ve very well been interpreted as racism,” said Chris Hinton, a member of BAUL who became a seven-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle in the NFL and now owns a wine store in Alpharetta, Ga.

As the years went on under Venturi, the Black athletes started to feel something wasn’t quite right with how he and his staff treated them in comparison to their white counterparts.

The players said they thought Venturi pressured Black athletes to sign up for fewer classes during football season and would scold or punish them for taking classes that conflicted with practice times. They believed their white teammates did not face the same pressure.

“Under Pont, academics was the lead. Under Venturi, that changed. Football was the lead,” said Mike Cammon, a junior tailback in 1980 and BAUL spokesperson. “I didn’t choose to go to a ‘football school.’ He was making choices that were impinging on our futures.”

Players also noted mistreatment in the form of unequal playing time. Both Hill and Hemphill disagreed with Venturi on that front, which led to a deteriorating relationship.

Hill led the Big Ten in kickoff return yards as a sophomore and even led the nation for about an eight-week period. His teammates remember him as one of the few bright spots on a team that didn’t win a game all season. However, the coaches decided to bench him, claiming other players needed an opportunity to play, according to Hill. White players ultimately replaced him.

A copy of the media guide from the 1979 Wildcat football season featuring photos of players and coaches.
Courtesy of Mike Cammon

Hemphill had multiple offers from top programs but chose Northwestern thinking he could hold a starting position at quarterback. Despite being more talented than his white counterparts, as he remembered, Venturi placed him at eighth string on the roster behind seven white players and tried to switch him to defensive back.

“They’re telling you one thing,” Hemphill said. “They get you there on this hope, this dream, this tale, and then they change the game on you.”

The situation began to escalate when Black players, by their accounts, witnessed Venturi and the medical staff allowing their white teammates proper time to recover from injuries but forced the Black players to return before they were ready and reprimanded them if they refused.

Webb experienced this treatment first-hand. After undergoing multiple offseason knee surgeries, he was unprepared to return for the next season and refused to play when the coaches urged him too, he recounted. In response, the coaches humiliated him by handing him a green bucket and having him go around the stadium to pick up trash while the entire team sat there and watched. It turned out Webb had a degenerative knee condition, which later sidelined him from football forever.

“Just because he was doing this to me, he had no idea he was doing this to every Black player on the football team,” Webb said. “They weren’t concentrating on playing. They were looking up in the stands and seeing their brother being basically tortured.”

Webb also remembered a white teammate who faced a gruesome injury receiving optimal treatment with ample time to recover and even free rides to practice every day. But during his own injury, Webb walked.

On multiple occasions, the players felt prejudiced against when Venturi dismissed Black athletes for allegations they believed were minor while giving their white teammates insignificant suspensions for the same or more serious charges. According to an article from For Members Only’s Blackboard Magazine, Venturi suspended a white player for a week who became angry with a coaching decision and hurled beer cans through his window. A Black athlete was later dismissed from the team altogether for “lack of hustle.”

This disparity in treatment became increasingly apparent to the players as the relationship between the Black athletes and Venturi further deteriorated. Venturi dismissed Hemphill under similar circumstances for closing his eyes during a late-night film session — something the players remembered both their Black and white teammates doing regularly.

Ultimately, the combination of academics, playing time, injuries and dismissals led BAUL to act. The athletes felt the coaches’ decisions were hurting their life plan and ruining their chances of succeeding long-term. They believed something had to be done.

“We’re smart,” said Hill, a running back on the team who now works as a photographer. “How the hell do you think we got in here? People with all this intelligence aren’t going to just sit back.”

The Black community at Northwestern was vibrant. The 650 to 700 Black students relied on each other for support in a greater campus climate that wasn’t very welcoming.

“There was this community that was very tight-knit but in some ways a little cloistered,” said Charles Whitaker, dean of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and a student at the time. “It was a community within a community, and you could very much stay within that community and not have a lot of interaction outside it.”

The center of it all was the Black House: a safe space that Black students and athletes alike relied on as their home away from home.

“The Black House was our refuge, our sanctuary,” said Kevin Blackistone, ESPN Around the Horn panelist and Northwestern student at the time. “There were some great faculty that were associated with that. Those were our parents away from home.”

The Black House and those faculty members, including the Department of African American Student Affairs dean Alice Palmer and associate deans Ulysses Duke Jenkins and Everne Saxton, played major roles in helping BAUL write a list of grievances to present to Jim Carleton, the vice president of student affairs.

On Oct. 11, 1980, soon after the coaches dismissed Hemphill from the team mid-season for sleeping through a film session, BAUL shared its grievances with Carleton.

A few days before the 0-5 Wildcats would face No. 9 Ohio State on homecoming weekend, about two dozen Black athletes presented this document detailing their alleged mistreatment. They cited the unfair dismissals, unequal playing time, poorly managed injury treatment and other accusations.

The next day, all of Northwestern and the entire sports world would know about BAUL.

BAUL’s grievances made headlines in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Venturi and his staff held a press conference soon after to address the allegations and issued a statement about their players saying, “The problem lies in self-perception and in the inabilities of certain individuals to cope with one’s own inadequacies.”

“The accusations simply aren’t true,” Venturi told the Tribune. “The racial attack is unwarranted. If I had been called a tough, demanding coach, then that’s true. But I know no color, lines or borders.”

Venturi declined interview requests for this article.

But BAUL never used the word “racism” in its grievances.

“We purposely stayed away from calling anyone a racist,” Webb said. “We never elevated the issue of racism as our driver.”

BAUL continued to face opposition from their white teammates — many of whom said they never witnessed a disparity in treatment due to race.

“I respect their viewpoints. I respect their perspectives, so this is not to refute what they believe did happen or did not happen,” said David Hoffman, a white player on the team at the time who was a senior defensive back in 1980 and now works as the head of corporate development for Scripps Health. “But I personally had not seen any one particular player called out because of the color of their skin. I can think of various times where people missed meetings, had conflicts and maybe there was a disciplinary situation, and in my opinion, there were representations on both sides of the race. I can’t recollect whether it was disproportional for one or the other.”

Hoffman cited events like Webb’s trash-collecting incident and claimed athletes of all races were forced to complete the degrading and demeaning tasks.

“Was the act in itself a demeaning act? I think given today’s standards, yes,” he said. “No matter what race or creed or background you are. I think that’s a reflection of the times and a reflection of the maturity of the coaching staff. There were better ways in which to address the situation than that one...But I did not see anyone called out to do any of those punishments by the color of their skin…Nobody was protected from that.”

Rich Raffin, a white sophomore tight end on the team who now runs a family-owned construction company, echoed Hoffman’s claim that the treatment was universal. For him, however, it was on the topic of injury mistreatment.

“I hurt my knee, and when I was rehabbing, I did get some feedback that I wasn’t working hard enough,” he said. “I wasn’t happy with the training staff. I felt that they were talking behind my back. I didn’t trust them after that.”

The issue soon became a public dispute. Sixty white athletes refuted the charges and backed their coach, releasing a statement of their own that read:

“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 contains slanderous statements and out-and-out lies intended to destroy the character of the coaching and medical staff of the Wildcat football team.”

According to Hoffman, there were mixed emotions. Some white players were angry, some were confused and some didn’t care one way or the other.

“I think the general feeling was disappointment that the group couldn’t have brought it to the broader team first,” he said.

Just like the team, the campus was split on the issue. The Black students rallied behind BAUL while many white students opposed the group or kept quiet. In a survey conducted by The Daily Northwestern at the time, 45 percent of students said Venturi deserved the blame, 28 percent blamed BAUL, 23 percent blamed Pont, 21 percent blamed the white players, seven percent blamed the university’s president Robert Strotz and 11 percent said no one person was to blame.

A number of other Black players quit the team following the outcry, including Hill and Cammon.

Mike Cammon (33) carries the ball in game action against Arizona State.
Courtesy of Mike Cammon

Many players reached their tipping point and became disenchanted with football, never being able to see the game in the same way again.

“I had loved football in a way that sometimes makes you wonder,” Cammon said. “It was everything. If I wasn’t on the field, I was jogging, running, tossing a ball to myself, playing touch football in the offseason. Football was at the center of all of it. I had an adult experience. Football had been an adolescent experience. That experience soured me. I could no longer look at football with true romantic eyes. It was a business. When I started to look at football in that way, I just wanted to go to school.”

Even Hinton, who went on to a Hall-of-Fame career in the NFL, questioned his role on the team.

“I thought about transferring because of some of the things that I saw happening,” he said.

The players weren’t content with just releasing the grievances, starting commotion and moving on. They wanted visible change to be implemented, so they kept pushing.

“We were used to the old football adage,” Cammon said. “You’ve got to get to the other side of the man in front of you. You can go through him. You can go around him. You can go under him. You can go over him. But you must get to the other side. And that’s the way that we approached this problem.”

“We just didn’t want to gripe about something,” Hemphill added. “We wanted to have change. We wanted to be part of the solution, so we brought forth the corrective action.”

BAUL then created a list of four structural proposals it hoped the school would implement and presented them to Strotz. They read as follows:

Medical Care – BAUL proposes that three signatures be required (by the trainer, a team doctor and the player) before a player returns to action. That way, malpractice suits can be avoided, and someone would be held accountable should a similar injury befall that player.

Recruiting – BAUL would like to see the scouts prove the legitimacy of their claims to the students they are trying to recruit. Ben Butler was told that there were courses offered for architecture majors. Also, an academic portfolio should be drawn up for each interested high school player, dependent upon their major, by the administration (only) to give students an accurate picture of what the workload would be like.

Academics – In the past, coaches have exerted a certain amount of influence in the class choice of the athletes. They have been known to particularly discourage players from taking classes at two in the afternoon because practice starts at three. BAUL wants more autonomy in choosing classes.

Dismissals – BAUL feels that all dismissals should be received by the athletic director and then the vice president of student affairs. This would create a better rapport between player, coach, and athletic director.

These asks prioritized improving campus life for all student-athletes regardless of race and were ultimately approved by Strotz. They were a significant win for BAUL and the Black community as a whole.

Even after the accepted proposals, many white players continued to defend Venturi and denied any claims BAUL made.

But the members of BAUL now attribute this divide to a lack of understanding and ignorance rather than actual malice. Their white teammates had vastly different experiences in their time on the football team.

“As people, I still love them,” Cammon said. “Never had an issue with my teammates. If they felt differently, then they were pretty good at keeping it from me. This was not about the team.”

“I don’t know if anyone really knows what the absolute truth is,” Hoffman said. “But it was a family to some degree — good or bad.”

“For all we went through, I’m really glad I played with these guys,” Raffin echoed. “We were different but developed strong bonds…I didn’t see any animosity in the locker room. They’re good people. I think that was a testament to the players.”

The whirlwind season ended shortly after with the ‘Cats finishing 0-11 overall and 0-9 in the Big Ten. At a team banquet, the white players praised Venturi in speeches and presented him a gift. They did not ask the Black players to contribute.

The team’s winless season only exacerbated the issues within the program and elevated tensions off the field.

“To lose like we did, it’s really hard to cope with,” Raffin said. “You put a lot of time in. You’re working hard. At times, you’re doing a lot of soul searching: Is this worth it? Should I be staying here? I think it magnifies things also. When you’re winning, things can slide by easier.”

While the season ended, the drama continued. Three days after the final game, Michael Wilbon, a recent Northwestern graduate then working for The Washington Post, wrote a powerful open letter in The Daily Northwestern to Pont and Venturi.

The Daily Northwestern’s sports section on Nov. 11, 1980 featured the complete guest column by Michael Wilbon on the right of the page.
Courtesy of The Daily Northwestern archives

“Do you really think that 35 Black football players are lying about how they feel they’ve been treated? I don’t,” Wilbon wrote. “There are a lot of problems facing NU’s athletic department, specifically your football program. This racial incident is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. When is our football team going to cease to be a source of embarrassment at Northwestern University?”

He ended by saying, “Do us and yourselves a favor and quit before the program is irreparably damaged.”

In a way, BAUL helped make the Black community at Northwestern closer than ever. The community felt their pain, even without directly experiencing it.

“Black students were very sympathetic even though they were somewhat indifferent to football,” Whitaker said. “Unlike today where the football team is kept very cloistered and away from the student body, back then, the student football players were much more engaged with the student body. These were individuals that people knew and went to parties with and went to classes with. There was tremendous sympathy when they started airing their grievances.”

Wilbon ultimately got his wish because the next day, Pont, Venturi and his staff of 10 assistants were all fired. Strotz said he wanted a “fresh start” and wiped out the entire staff to do so. While BAUL’s efforts certainly contributed to the coaches’ firings, the team’s record did not help their case either.

“The program was not to where the university and the athletic director wished it would’ve been,” Hoffman said. “[BAUL’s grievances] were a bad taste in the mouths of those who had to make the decision to do what they had to do...I’d say on the merits of the record and output of the team and where the program was heading, I would not disagree with it.”

Even after his dismissal, Venturi’s response was similar: “I don’t care if this is investigated or not. My name is clear. I said from day one — there’s been no wrongdoing. I’m not going to worry about the perception people have. What’s right is right.”

Pont’s removal came as more of a surprise but was justified, according to the players’ memories.

“Somehow Northwestern was able to overlook Dennis Green and a number of other highly qualified minority coaches to pick [Venturi],” Webb said. “Now you’ve got this young, inexperienced coach and you give him the reigns and you turn you back on the program, so whatever’s going on there, you don’t know about, and you don’t want to know about. If we don’t hold the university accountable for some of the stuff that went on on their watch, it would be neglect. That kind of institutional neglect allowed a lot of the things we experienced.”

The issues with the administration and athletic department weren’t limited to Black players’ opinions either.

“If I would point fingers at people, it would be at the athletic director and the administration,” Raffin said. “The athletic director should be advocating for the sports programs, and he didn’t do that. If you’re going to recruit, you need facilities. You need people to believe you’re committed to winning. And that didn’t happen. The administration had no incentive. They were just happy to be in the Big Ten.”

While BAUL never intended to have the entire staff fired and never even planned to release grievances at the group’s conception, the aftermath was out of its hands, and the campus was split about it. Many people opposed the decision and expressed their frustrations.

“I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s livelihood,” said Hemphill. “He’s got a family. There were some good qualities about Rick, but there were some things about him too as far as coaching and how he treated my brothers that didn’t go down right.”

In addition to the firings, the campus culture changed. The counselor and tutorial systems were revamped for football players. The new athletic director vowed to keep all student-athletes educated and prepared, honoring BAUL’s proposals. He also allocated more money to the programs by redoing the locker rooms, training facilities and improving the stadium.

But above all, the Black community bonded and became even stronger.

“That type of bond was definitely a lifelong bond,” Hill said. “There was nothing that was ever going to change that.”

Of all the changes, the most notable was Northwestern hired Dennis Green, who in 1981 became the first African American head coach in the Big Ten.

“It was definitely a welcomed change for the players,” Raffin said. “He was more of a personality than Rick Venturi. Denny was more outgoing and well-spoken.”

Green struggled too, winning no more than three games in any of his five seasons in Evanston. But his impact on the program was much greater. In his second season, he won just three games but was honored as Big Ten Coach of the Year. The community and the team rallied behind him.

Venturi and Pont continued their careers elsewhere. After posting just a 1-31-1 record in his three seasons at Northwestern, Venturi began coaching in the NFL two years later, serving stints with the Colts, Browns, Saints and Rams. Despite the challenges he faced at Northwestern, he went on to have a vibrant and full career until 2008 in the pros. Pont coached at a high school in his home state of Ohio, at Mount St. Joes University and then in the X-League, the American football league in Japan. He passed away in 2008 at the age of 80.

Game day programs often featured the coaching staff instead of the players during Rick Venturi’s stint. This particular program from 1978 features, from left to right, athletic director John Pont, Evanston mayor Jay Lytle and head coach Rick Venturi.
Courtesy of Mike Cammon

In the 40 years since the events, many of the players and Venturi have moved on and put their disagreements behind them. After playing under him at Northwestern, Hinton went on to play for Venturi again in the NFL for the Colts. The two remain in contact today, have reconciled and developed a personal relationship over the years.

“I think Rick is an honorable and good man,” Hinton said of his former coach.

Hemphill saw Venturi years later when visiting Hinton in the Colts’ locker room and engaged in some small talk but never fully addressed the issue again.

“Rick was not a bad guy,” Hemphill said. “He and I just weren’t a good fit…We live and learn and hopefully grow from our experiences. I think we have all done that.”

Ultimately, the legacy that BAUL left behind extends far beyond the 1980 changes. The opportunities that all athletes have on Northwestern’s campus today remain a part of their ongoing impact on the school.

“Had we not done what we did, they wouldn’t have brought in the coaches they did,” Webb said. “They wouldn’t have brought in the talent they did. They wouldn’t have won the games they won had we not taken them off a course and make them look and act and behave a different way, including hiring Black coaches. The Northwestern program that you see now is also a part of our legacy.”

While BAUL facilitated systemic change in the way Northwestern views and treats its athletes and athletic programs, the events that unfolded in 1980 would be far from the final time a college football player took a stand against racism.

Since the recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and countless others, college football players have challenged their programs and demanded justice just like BAUL did 40 years ago.

This year, numerous Iowa players spoke out, claiming mistreatment by strength coach Chris Doyle and an inhospitable culture toward Black athletes — and a full report to be released later this week. Texas athletes refused to take part in donor-related events until campus building names and statues with racist implications are changed. Two Liberty football players announced their plan to transfer due to racial insensitivity by the university’s leadership. Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill refused to play until the state of Mississippi removed the Confederate battle emblem from its flag.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

“It shows you the agency that college athletes can have, particularly those in revenue generating sports and particularly those who are Black,” Blackistone said. “Because these guys were fearless enough to band together and make a very cogent argument, they were able to bring about change at Northwestern. In doing so, they certainly became part of a lineage of Black college athletes struggling across the country. What you see happening today is in large part credit to what these guys did for them. I think they really need to be recognized for that.”

Ultimately, while BAUL’s story has been buried in years of history, its legacy is vibrant and everlasting in the culture of Northwestern athletics. What started as four friends in a basement on the South Side of Chicago continues to promote systemic and historic change for good.

“At the time, little did BAUL know how great a role it would play in the reorganization of Northwestern University’s entire athletic future,” read the introduction of BAUL’s 1980 yearbook. “The newspaper clippings which follow tell the story of a struggle of which we as Black students should be proud.”

These two paragraphs were the opening of BAUL’s 1980 yearbook.
Courtesy of the Northwestern University Library Archives
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