Any campus rebellion should be pleased to have an undergraduate like William Alfred Skinner in its front line. Skinner stands 6'6�", weighs 235, is awesomely tattooed, knows how to use his fists and can throw a spear almost 300 feet. In other respects his credentials as a militant seem less emphatic. Now 31, Skinner has been married, divorced and is a father. He did a hitch in the Navy. He is a certified welder and sheet-metal worker, as were his father and his grandfather. If Skinner took any interest in politics it would be as a conservative Democrat. He believes it is sheer laziness to go on unemployment, that everyone should be drafted, that the American flag should be dipped to no authority or symbol on earth.
This is a student revolutionary? You'd sooner expect to find Skinner, like Horatius at the bridge, barring the door to the dean's office. And yet, because he refuses to shave off his mustache, Skinner has challenged the authority of the University of Tennessee's powerful and profitable athletic department and caused a great deal of embarrassment to the administration.
Last year, as a 30-year-old junior, Skinner won three national javelin titles and defeated the Olympic champion in the U.S.A.- U.S.S.R. dual meet. This year he has been barred from the training table, suspended from the track squad and will not be defending his title next week at the NCAA track and field championships in Seattle, although he is the cover boy of the NCAA's 1971 Track and Field Guide—clean-shaven, wearing a big T on his chest.
As at many another university, the coaches in what is known as Big Orange Country sincerely believe that short hair and clean-shaven faces may be the last rampart protecting their boys from the tidal wave of drugs, promiscuity, anarchy and cooties that has engulfed other campuses. And rules are rules, even if you're 31.
The rule that Skinner has chosen to disregard is No. 5 on a list of seven parietal regulations posted in Bill Gibbs Hall, the quaintly named athletic dormitory at Tennessee. Rule No. 5 must also be observed by all team members whether they reside in Bill Gibbs or not. It reads: "Appearance—No mustaches, goatees, etc. allowed. Extremely long hair will not be tolerated."
Athletic Director Bob (Coach) Woodruff, a gruff, portly former Vol lineman and line coach who, from behind an immense desk and a bright orange telephone, presides over one of the most successful athletic programs in the country, defends the code.
"These things are something the staff gets together and works out each year," says Woodruff, who picks his way carefully through each sentence he utters, as if a word might suddenly explode in his face. "We advise the boys by mail in advance about the rules. It's a voluntary program. If a boy decides that he can't go according to the rules it's his choice whether or not he's going to continue to participate on a team and keep his athletic grant. These rules are not made to restrict the individual, but to help the team, to help guys to work together. Our fans and our student body look up to and respect our athletes. We have to stay away from any possible image of drug taking."
Skinner's image is that of a serious, thoughtful, stubborn man, aware of the hypocrisy, if not the humor, involved in giving an athletic scholarship to a man in his 30s and then treating him like a teen-ager.
"Don't take me for a radical or a hippie," Skinner pleads. "I'm just an athlete, trying to get along. This all started over what I considered an invasion of privacy. Now it's more than that. In a small way I'm challenging the department's false standards and misrepresentations, protesting against the fact that all athletes outside of the football team are treated as second-class citizens."
Organized athletics aren't Skinner's bag. At high school in Wilmington, Del. Skinner didn't go out for sports. Instead, he set pins in a bowling alley for seven to 12 hours a day, seven days a week.