Since professional football's inception in 1920 and until 1933, the sport enlisted a total of 13 black players. One of the first African-Americans to play in the American Professional Football Association, later the National Football League, was Frederick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard. In 1923, Pollard was named head coach of the Akron Pros, attaining the distinction of being the first black coach in the NFL. There would not be another black head coach in the league until 66 years later when the Los Angeles Raiders tapped Art Shell to lead its team in 1989.
Most head coaches today can be seen enthusiastically pacing on the sidelines and interacting with their players. It was different for Pollard. In his book, Fritz Pollard: Pioneer in Racial Advancement, John Carroll reports that even though he was the team's head coach, Pollard was not allowed on the sidelines. Instead, he was forced to sit on the bench while his team captain ran the game on the field.
His achievements were remarkable, but despite these early gains by Pollard, by 1934 there were no black players on any NFL team and there would not be again until after World War II. Football historians are split as to the reason for the absence of black players over this 12-year span.
In "Outside the Pale: The Exclusion of Blacks from the National Football League, 1934-1946," from the Journal of Sports History, Thomas G. Smith says that many put the blame on George Preston Marshall, former owner of the Washington Redskins. Credited with putting the NFL on the map, Marshall was openly racist and his team would not be integrated until the Kennedy administration forced him to do so in 1962. Some historians suspect that other owners did not want to offend Marshall by signing a black player and so black athletes were passed over.
Others, according to Smith, say that the NFL's financial constraints restricted recruiting opportunities at anything but major colleges where few black students could be found. The scouting system in place today was nonexistent at the time, and black colleges were virtually overlooked.
Smith contends in his article, however, that there were many quality black athletes on major college teams during the 1930s, but points out that during this depression decade it would have been detrimental to an organization to hire a black man when so many white men were out of work.
One of the last black players to be let go before the 12-year span was Ray Kemp, who played his final game with the Pittsburgh Pirates (later the Pittsburgh Steelers) in 1933 against the New York Giants. Although Kemp would enjoy a long career coaching college football, in "Outside the Pale" Smith states that in an interview more than 30 years later, Kemp cited racism as the reason for his release from professional football. "It was my understanding," Kemp said in the interview, "that there was a gentleman's agreement in the league that there would be no more blacks."
Indeed, according to Smith's article, in 1935 Coach Paul Schlisser of the Chicago Cardinals admitted that there was an unwritten rule barring blacks from football. He claimed, however, that it was for their own protection, citing how opposing teams in the league beat up on black players.
The color barrier was finally broken in 1946 when the Los Angeles Rams signed Kenny Washington. Washington had been a star for UCLA in the late 1930s, setting records for rushing and passing. Soon after, Paul Brown, coach and part-owner of the Cleveland Browns, who vowed to sign the best players "regardless of color," signed two black players, Bill Willis and Marion Motley.
The Cleveland franchise was originally part of the All-America Football Conference but was picked up by the NFL when the AAFC folded in 1950. Following Brown's lead, more and more owners added black players to their team rosters until in 1961, according to Smith, 16.5 percent of NFL players were black.
Progress, however, was slow and the newly-signed players encountered prejudice from opposing teams. Smith says Willis and Motley were not allowed to play games against the league's team from Miami because Florida state law prohibited integration. Black players would also have had to endure the indignities of discrimination off the field as well with hotels that would not allow them to stay and restaurants that would not allow them to dine.
Hailed as pioneers in their chosen sport of football, these men, with their dogged determination, were, whether by choice or by fate, pioneers in the civil rights movement.
Last Week’s Trivia
This very well known Chicago Cub
was the first MLB player to win the MVP Award on a last place team? Most e-mails
incorrectly named Ernie Banks. In Andre Dawson’s first season with the Cubs,
1987, the right fielder hit .287 with 49 home runs and 137 runs batted in, and
was named the NL MVP. The Cubs finished the season last in the National League
As a bonus, Dawson was also the first player intentionally walked five times in a single major league game. Now that’s respect!
Trivia Question of the Week
Who was the first AFL player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame? See next week’s Sports Junkie for the answer.