A still of members of Howard’s 1974 national championship soccer team.
Lincoln “Tiger” Phillips calls it, “a setback that led to comeback” regarding his 1971 Howard University national championship soccer team that was stripped of its title by the NCAA, setting the stage for them to redeem themselves in 1974. To Spike Lee and ESPN, it’s called “Redemption Song,” a short film that gives Lee’s ‘Lil Joints series a chance to chronicle a lost story in the annals of HBCU sports history.
A packed audience watched the debut of the film at Howard University’s Crampton Auditorium April 26 as members of the history making team were honored for their championship exploits. Their saga of blending a multi-national team of elite soccer players during the heart of the civil rights movement into what many experts say was the most talented college team ever stands alone. However, the resilience they displayed overcoming the adversity of a system that was prejudiced towards them makes it more compelling.
Phillips, who faced Pele’ in the North American Soccer League after his stellar career as a goalie in Trinidad and Tobago, made Howard soccer one of the most popular student activities on campus during the early 1970’s. The Bison played with a flashy style that merged the talents of players from the Caribbean and Africa. Their matches, on what is now Greene Stadium, drew standing room only crowds just off Georgia Ave. in Northwest D.C. In 1971 Howard became the first HBCU to win a NCAA Division I national championship when they defeated St. Louis University at The Orange Bowl in Miami.
However, the NCAA stripped Howard of its national championship using ambiguous rules. They ruled that four players lost their amateur status by playing with teams in their home countries. In addition to losing the championship they were also given a one-year probation and couldn’t participate in the national tournament.
Most analysts and soccer historians agree that ruling was egregious and vindictive. Stripping Howard of their national championship is considered a felony verdict for a misdemeanor charge. There are many who believe that the school’s visibility in the midst of the nation’s civil rights turmoil also played into the NCAA’s harsh punishment.
“I was never thinking about discrimination,” said Phillips. “I was thinking about, ‘We’ll get it back.’”
The story of redemption plays out for the Bison in 1974 as Phillips led his team to victory over St. Louis once again to claim the national title which still stands. They were the most dominant team in NCAA history outscoring the opposition 63-9 finishing undefeated 19-0.
“Every time we took the soccer field we had to represent a group of people in a country who needed a voice,” said Ian Bain, a midfielder on the both the 1971 and 1974 teams. “We grew because of the struggle”.
Lee’s collaboration with ESPN led to giving a Howard University graduate a platform to tell this story. Producer Mark Wright is a writer for ESPN and teamed with filmmaker Kenan Holley to seamlessly blend authentic footage from Howard broadcasts and news clips with fascinating tales from players and notable alumni such as boxing promoter turned TV host Rock Newman.
“Redemption Song” is the latest project under the umbrella of Lee’s “Lil Joints” umbrella where he hopes to give aspiring filmmakers a chance to display their talents on a short form stage like ESPN’s. He previously developed projects involving Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen. Holley is hoping to turn this story into a feature length film.
The movie debuts on ESPN’s SportsCenter June 7 but will be online for the launch of the network’s new website The Undefeated on May 17.