Institutional racism and individual racism have been fundamental components of sports in America. The playing fields of America were slowly integrated in the twentieth century, and in the twenty-first century the struggle has shifted to equity in off-the-field opportunities.
The growth of the American sporting scene began during the mid-nineteenth century and then accelerated after the Civil War, primarily as a result of urbanization and industrialization. Sadly, participation in this growing sporting experience was greatly affected by race and racism. As America embraced formal legal segregation toward the end of the century, the eviction of African Americans from many professional sports was already underway. African Americans were involved in all of the major popular sports of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ranging from horse racing, baseball, and bicycling to boxing and football. Black athletes were systematically removed from all professional sports with the creation of formal color barriers by the early twentieth century. Professional football was one of the last sports to force black athletes out of its ranks by the 1930s, but one of the first to reintegrate beginning in 1946.
The sport of football has intersected with notions of race in a number of ways. It has been a stage on which ideas about racial superiority and inferiority have played out, and it has been a means for promoting social mobility. In exploring the social history of race and football, one sees the development of “racial”integration, racial separateness by position, the rise of black coaches, racial epithets about football players, and finally the internationalization of the sport.
The National Football League (NFL) included black players from its inception in 1920, but a color barrier was created after the 1933 season; there was then a reintegration of pro football beginning in 1946. Professional football evolved from local athletic clubs, and these clubs traced their beginnings to college football. In 1869 Princeton and Rutgers played the first intercollegiate football game in the United States. By the 1880s and 1890s football was a central feature of all college social life, including that of African Americans. In 1892 Biddle College (now Johnson C. Smith College in Charlotte, NC) took on and defeated Livingstone College, 4-0, in Salisbury, North Carolina, marking the first intercollegiate football game between historically black schools.
The first black player to play at a white college was William Henry Lewis, who played center for both Amherst College and Harvard beginning in 1888. Lewis also became the first black player to be selected as an All-American when he was placed on Walter Camp’s prestigious 1892 and 1893 teams. Several other black players followed Lewis: William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson was a halfback and teammate of Lewis at Amherst in 1890; George Jewett was a punter, field-goal kicker, and halfback at the University of Michigan in 1890. William Arthur Johnson played halfback at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that same year; George A. Flippin starred at halfback from 1892 to 1894 at the University of Nebraska; and William Lee Washington lettered at Oberlin as a halfback from 1895 to 1897.
More than fifty black players played on white college teams from 1889 through 1920. However, there were seldom more than two blacks on one team, and most white schools had no black players at all. Likewise, professional football was not about to embrace African-American athletes during this golden age of legal segregation, and, as in college football, only a few opportunities were extended to black players, beginning with the first black professional, Charles Follis. In 1904 the Shelby Athletic Club signed Follis to a contract to play halfback. Follis’s professional career only lasted three seasons, because white players went out of their way to hurt him. Leg and shoulder injuries eventually forced him from the game. While helping the Shelby team to several wins with his dazzling runs, Follis was the frequent victim of opposing players’ knuckles and knees, and fans subjected him to constant taunts and racial epithets. Nevertheless, he laid the foundation for other black players to follow during this period of limited integration.
Following in the shadow of Follis were three other black professionals who played prior to the 1920 formation of the American Professional Football Association, which changed its name to the National Football League in 1922. In 1906 Charles “Doc”Baker played halfback for the Akron Indians. He was followed by Henry McDonald, a running back for the Oxford (NY) Pros in 1911 and the Rochester Jeffersons in 1912. The last African American to play during this pre-NFL era was Gideon E. Smith, who played for the Canton Bulldogs in 1915. Smith played only once during the 1915 season, at tackle, making him the last black to play professional football before the formation of the APFA. During its first three decades of existence, the newly formed NFL desperately competed with college football for attention. Ivy League teams and college teams in the Midwest and on the West Coast drew fans in numbers that NFL owners could only envy. But this did allow several black stars from the college ranks to be extended opportunities in hopes of drawing fans. The Akron Pros brought on Fritz Pollard from Brown University in 1919 and one year later Akron signed the Rutgers player Paul Robeson, who would later achieve fame as a singer, actor, and civil rights activist. Joe Lillard left Oregon and played for the Chicago Cardinals during the 1932 and 1933 seasons.
It appears that by this time black players had fulfilled their roles as curiosity objects for white fans, and that the NFL had established itself as a legitimate sport. The black player, therefore, was no longer needed to help in this process. No black players played on NFL teams after the 1933 season, until Kenny Washington and Woody Strode were added to roster of the Los Angeles Rams during the 1946 season. Bill Willis and Marion Motley played with the Cleveland Browns during the 1946 season as well, in the newly formed All-American Football Conference.
Arguably, sports was the first arena in American society to undergo postwar integration, and football led the way. One full year before Jackie Robinson took the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Washington, Strode, Willis, and Motley were playing a contact sport with white players. These four pioneers laid the foundation for the reintegration of pro football, which was finally completed during the 1962 season when the Washington Redskins desegregated by adding Bobby Mitchell, Leroy Jackson, John Nisby, and Ron Hatcher. The Redskins were led by a stubborn owner, George Preston Marshall, who finally relented under pressure from the Kennedy administration. Marshall portrayed the Redskins as a team of the South, with southern traditions such as playing “Dixie”at games, which facilitated “rebel”yells from fans.
Postwar College Football . Without question, southern college teams put up the greatest resistance to black participation. Several African Americans were members of squads that played against white teams in the south. In 1951 Johnny Bright, running back for Drake University in Iowa, played in a game against Oklahoma A&M, during which he was intentionally punched in the face and subsequently suffered a broken jaw. In 1955 Marvin Griffin, the governor of Georgia, banned Georgia Tech from playing in the Sugar Bowl against the University of Pittsburgh, which had a black player, Bobby Grier. Interestingly, students from Georgia Tech marched on the Capital and forced the governor to relent. Grier thus became the first African American to play in the Sugar Bowl. Two years later in 1958, Prentiss Gault became the first black player at a major southern white school when he signed to play at the University of Oklahoma. Gault led the way for other black players at white universities; among those who followed Gault was Jerry LeVias, who played with Southern Methodist University in 1966 as a receiver and was the first African American in the Southwest Athletic Conference (SAC).
In the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Freddie Summers became the first African-American player in 1967 when he played quarterback for Wake Forest University. Two African-American players integrated the Southeastern Conference (SEC) when the University of Kentucky signed Nat Northington and Greg Page in 1966. However, only Northington is credited with breaking the color barrier, for he played against the University of Mississippi as a receiver in 1967. Page had been injured the day before during a drill and was paralyzed; he died from his injuries thirty-eight days later. Northington appeared in three more games before leaving the team.
Kentucky may have initiated the integration of college football in the Deep South, but a game played by the University of Alabama made it acceptable. On September 12, 1970, the University of Southern California, led by Sam “Bam”Cunningham, defeated Alabama in Birmingham, 42 to 21 in a much anticipated matchup that forced many white fans to reevaluate the merits of the black player. Although Alabama coach Paul “Bear”Bryant had a signed black player (who was sitting in the stands), Cunningham’s performance validated extending opportunities to African Americans all over the South.
While the process of integrating both college and professional teams was slow and arduous, black players also faced similar resistance integrating various positions. The unwritten policy of “stacking,”or confining black players to specific positions, was embraced by many white coaches, particularly at the professional level. In 1957, when Jim Brown entered the NFL as a running back with the Cleveland Browns, he noticed that black players tended to play running back, receiver, corner back, and on the defensive line. Brown also felt that teams typically carried an even number of black players to avoid having a black player possibly room with a white player on the road. The policy of stacking arguably existed in the NFL until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when positions such as middle linebacker, offensive lineman, and safety began to be integrated.
Ernie Davis, a halfback from Syracuse University was the first African American to be selected first overall in the 1962 NFL draft. The Washington Redskins picked him then traded his rights to the Cleveland Browns for Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Jackson.
The position of quarterback was the last opened to black players. Fritz Pollard, Joe Lillard, and George Taliaferro, an otherwise outstanding halfback, had played quarterback during games only out of necessity. In 1953 the Chicago Bears drafted the black quarterback Willie Thrower out of Michigan State, but they released him before the season ended without giving him any legitimate playing time. In 1955 the Green Bay Packers drafted Charlie Brackins out of Prairie View A&M, but he only played in one game before being released. The first black quarterback to play regularly was Marlin Briscoe, who set records at the University of Omaha before he joined the Denver Broncos of the American Football League in 1968. James Harris, who played at Grambling College, had a twelve-year career, from 1969 to 1981, and played for the Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Rams, and San Diego Chargers. Arguably, Doug Williams, who played for Grambling before turning professional, helped change forever the perception of the black quarterback in the NFL. In 1987 Williams became the first African American to lead his team (the Washington Redskins) to the Super Bowl. His dominating performance led the Red-skins to victory over the Denver Broncos, and Williams shattered the myths of intellectual and athletic shortcomings that had been used to keep black players out of the most important position on the field.
In 2001 Michael Vick became the first African American to be selected as the number one overall draft pick as a quarterback when he was chosen by the Atlanta Falcons. In some ways this represented the crowning achievement for black players in their struggle to integrate football fields across America. It also caused many to change the focus to challenges that African Americans faced off the field.
The integration of coaching ranks and administrative positions, both in college and the NFL, has been an ongoing process. In 1981 Dennis Green became the first black college football coach at a predominantly white school when he was hired by Northwestern University. Fritz Pollard co-coached the Akron Pros in the APFA, thus making him the first black coach in professional football. Art Shell was hired by the Oakland Raiders in 1989, which made him the first black coach in the NFL’s modern era. In 2007 there were six black head coaches among the thirty-two NFL teams: Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals,
Herman Edwards of the Kansas City Chiefs, Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts, Romeo Crennel of the Cleveland Browns, Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears, and Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith made history in February 2007 as the first two black coaches to face each other in the Super Bowl, which was won by Dungy’s Colts, 29 to 17.
In 2007 there were three African Americans serving as general managers in the NFL: Ozzie Newsome of the Baltimore Ravens, Rick Smith of the Houston Texans, and Jerry Reese of the New York Giants. But there are no African-American majority owners in the NFL, where black players constitute 67 percent of the league. Clearly, more opportunities must be extended off the field by a league that is largely reliant on the physical skills of black players. The same is virtually true in college football, though the number of off-the-field opportunities are far fewer. In 2007 there were only six African American head coaches of the 119 Division I schools: Randy Shannon of the University of Miami, Sylvester Croom of Mississippi State University, Karl Dorrell of UCLA, Turner Gill of the University of Buffalo, Ron Prince of Kansas State, and Tyrone Willingham of the University of Washington. Interestingly, there were twelve African-American athletic directors at the Division I level at this time. Black players, meanwhile, made up 50 percent of the student athletes in Division I college football in 2007. The NFL has attempted to open its ranks to African-American head coaches by requiring teams to include a minority in the respective pools of candidates during their hiring process. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has not instituted such a policy, however, and indeed it has been openly resistant to such a policy.
The lack of opportunities beyond the football field is a by-product of institutional racism. Many NFL owners, college athletic directors, and university presidents apparently do not think African Americans deserve the same chance as whites to be head coaches. In January of 1988 Jimmy “the Greek”Snyder, who provided betting odds for NFL games, was fired by CBS after comments made to a reporter that indicated he felt blacks were “naturally superior athletes”because of slavery. Synder’s remarks followed those of Al Campanis, a former baseball player who had played with Jackie Robinson. One year earlier, during a live television interview, Campanis addressed the issue of why there were few black managers and no black general managers in Major League Baseball. He stated that he felt African Americans “may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or, perhaps, a general manager.”Many characterized the comments of Synder and Campanis as individual, isolated views that were not indicative of the larger culture in which they worked.
The reality of the NFL and college football being fueled by the labor of a black majority but not coached by one is, at the very least, extremely contradictory. The NFL has been gradually attempting to broaden its fan base internationally, while at the same time allowing teams to develop players with potential. Many of the players who participate in what is now called NFL Europa are African American. Founded in 1991 as the World League of American Football, the current league has six teams and has been very successful in generating fan enthusiasm and support. The opening weekend of the 2007 season witnessed a record attendance of 89,367 fans. Black players are instrumental to the success of this league, but of the six teams only one has an African-American head coach—the Frankfurt Galaxy, coached by Mike Jones. The international marketability of pro football has made it one of the most supported and economically viable sports in the world. Close to one billion people watched the Super Bowl on February 4, 2007, with about nineteen television and radio stations from fourteen countries broadcasting from Miami’s Dolphin Stadium. The game was televised in 232 countries and territories in thirty-four languages.
Both the NFL and college football have experienced unprecedented financial success, and increases in average attendance, the building of new stadiums, the expansion of existing stadiums, the rise in coaching salaries, and increases in the cost of television contracts are all testaments to this success. Black players are certainly responsible for at least part of the financial windfall that this sport is experiencing. In Division I sports, college football is the leading revenue-generating sport on most campuses, whereas most other sports on major college campuses do not turn a profit. Without college football, many institutions would not be able to comply with the U.S. law known as Title IX, which requires equal opportunity for female athletic participation. Sports such as women’s swimming, rowing, gymnastics, volleyball, rifle, and softball, which are overwhelmingly white, could not exist without the funds generated by football.
The salaries of head coaches have reached new zeniths in college football, led by the 2007 contract signed between Nick Saban and the University of Alabama for 32 million dollars over eight years. The top twenty highest-paid coaches in college football are all white, and the only African American in the top twenty-five is Tyrone Willingham at the University of Washington. These coaches lead teams that perennially play in bowl games, which generate added income for the coach, conference, and team. But when the black player’s eligibility is up, his chances of becoming a part of the coaching fraternity is very limited. To many observers, this situation in untenable and needs to change.
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Charles K. Ross