More than just Jackie

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If Jackie Robinson were alive today, he might chuckle at the irony and injustice of it all.

Robinson was one of three players on UCLA’s 1939 football team who subsequently were pioneers in the integration of major league professional sports. But although Robinson’s baseball achievements have been duly honored, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode have received much less attention.

During Black History Month and this bicentennial week of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, therefore, it is right and proper to hail the two men who integrated the modern NFL in 1946, one year before Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Washington, Strode and two other men broke through pro football’s unofficial color barrier that season. Fullback Marion Motley and guard Bill Willis played for the champion Cleveland Browns in the fledgling All-America Football Conference, and both are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Neither of the Rams matched Motley and Willis on the field. Washington lasted just three years in the NFL, gaining 1,086 yards rushing and receiving and scoring nine touchdowns before retiring at 30. Strode became an actor after catching just four passes for 37 yards in 1946, his only NFL season.

Yet in terms of significance, all four are equal.

Rams owner Dan Reeves moved the club from Cleveland to Los Angeles for the 1946 season after the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission agreed to allow integrated games at the stadium. By so doing, Reeves joined Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey as an early civil rights advocate on sporting fronts. That same year, Robinson made his debut with the Montreal Royals, a Dodgers farm team.

Strode, a two-way end who became a noted Hollywood character actor in films like “Spartacus,” and Washington, a running back, were not the first black players in the NFL. Thirteen played between 1920 and 1934, but then the league became lily white for more than a decade.

There were no written rules banning blacks, of course. Chicago Bears founder George Halas always insisted that segregation “just happened,” but that’s hard to swallow. A more likely reason is that most NFL teams played in stadiums owned by baseball teams that had no black players.

The unofficial ban was no surprise. In those days, relatively few white people in the United States were concerned with civil rights. The most prominent black player of the 1920s, Fritz Pollard of the Providence Steam Roller, was subjected to shameful racial abuse on the field. The NFL’s attitude toward blacks, a Steam Roller a team official recalled, was “bad, very bad.”

Nor did the debuts of Washington and Strode open any floodgates. Three years later, only five black players were in the league. The pace increased after 1950, when the Browns joined the NFL and dominated the Eastern Conference with Motley and Willis playing key roles. Outstanding black players like Ollie Matson of the Chicago Cardinals, Deacon Jones and Dick “Night Train” Lane of the Rams and Len Ford of the Browns helped pave the path for others.

By 1959, there were 52 blacks on team rosters, or 12 percent of the NFL. One notable exception was the Washington Redskins, who remained segregated until 1962 because owner George Preston Marshall was afraid of offending fans on the team’s Southern radio and TV networks. For shame.

You might say Marshall and his collection of Caucasians got what they deserved. The Redskins did not make the playoffs from 1945 to 1971, though they finally were integrated in 1962 after Interior Secretary Stewart Udall threatened to oust them from federally funded D.C. (now RFK) Stadium.

Gradually, other NFL barriers came tumbling down like Humpty Dumpty. After Doug Williams led the Redskins to a Super Bowl title on Jan. 31, 1988, the number of black quarterbacks increased sharply. Art Shell became the league’s first modern black head coach with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1989. Gene Upshaw was elected executive director of the NFL Players Association in 1983.

In other words, skin color no longer matters. As it never should have.

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