Racism in the NFL did not just come up over night. Riley Cooper was neither the beginning nor end of the debate of racism around the league.
We have all read or heard about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in professional baseball. No one has really told the story of how those Jim Crow days affected the NFL. By being a Dallas Cowboys fan, I am aware of the deep racism of the Washington Redskins original owner George P. Marshall. I will get into that in a moment. I want to go a little further back.
Imagine if Jackie Robinson would have decided to play football. He was a star football player when he attended the University of California Los Angeles, UCLA. While playing college football, Jackie Robinson played in an All-Star game. The game played was between the 1941 NFL Champion Chicago Bears and the best players in college football. Averaging 12 yards per carry, Jackie Robinson led the nation in that category. The Chicago Bears whipped the college All-Stars 37-13. However, Jackie ran circles around the Bears defense. Dick Plasman said of Jackie Robinson,
That Jackie Robinson is the fastest man I’ve ever seen in a uniform. I thought Don Hutson was fast, but he could spot Don five yards and pass him by. The only time I was worried about the game was when Robinson was in there.
Winning the respect of the pros in the game was one thing. Winning the respect of the rest of the NFL was another. Jackie Robinson went undrafted in the NFL draft that year. Back in those days, much like major League Baseball racism reigned and the NFL was a segregated league. Jackie Robinson decided to play in the Negro League instead of trying to break through into the NFL. The rest as we could say was the beginning of MLB history.
With Jackie in mind, let us dig a little deeper in to the racisim. What if Jackie Robinson was not the first African-American football player to try to break into the NFL? What if things went further back? Many are led to believe two teammates of Jackie Robinson at UCLA, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington, were the first to try to break the color barrier of the NFL (Remember this statement). Strode and Washington were to the NFL what Jackie Robinson was to Major League Baseball.
The Cleveland Rams would give these two their opportunity to play for an NFL franchise. Then again, they really did not have a choice. The Rams moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles in 1946 and were slated to play in the Los Angeles Coliseum. The commissioners of the Coliseum placed a provision in the lease that required the team to integrate to play there. Therefore, like their former teammate, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington broke the color line of the NFL. Their break through was not received as well as Jackie Robinson’s. They endured racial abuse not only from their opponents but also from their own teammates.
Not given a chance to display their skills in the NFL, both washed out of the NFL within 3 years. Kenny Washington joined the Los Angeles Police Department while Woody Strode went to Canada to play for a few more years before becoming an actor. Although they did not have great on-field accomplishments in comparison to Jackie Robinson, Strode and Washington were trailblazers. Woody Strode summed up his experience in the NFL in one statement he gave to a reporter in 1971. When asked about how it was to be the first black man to play in an NFL game, his response was simple,
If I have to integrate heaven, I don’t want to go.
Now do you remember the statement I told you to remember? Let us look further into that statement. The NFL was actually ahead of Major League Baseball. Back in the 1920’s when the league started, there were African-American players. Fritz Pollard, a running back led a team called the Akron Pros, one of the NFL’s charter franchises. Pollard earned first-team All American honors for Brown University in the Ivy League back in 1916.
Fritz Pollard led the Pros to an undefeated season and the NFL’s first championship. Taking over leadership of the team the following year, Pollard officially became the first African-American head coach of an NFL team. He still played every down as the Pros half-back and was their best player. Fritz Pollard played eight seasons in the NFL and was inducted Posthumous into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
About 13 other African-American players appeared in the NFL between 1920 and 1933. Included in that group was a man many may consider one of the most talented Americans of all time regardless of race, Paul Robeson. To pay his way through Columbia University law School, Robeson played three NFL seasons. He did all of that before becoming a worldwide recognized singer, actor, political activist, and civil rights spokesperson.
Now we will get into part of the reason the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins do not get along too well. While Woody Strode and Kenny Washington were trying to blaze a trail for other African-American football players to enter the NFL, George P. Marshall, then owner of the Washington Redskins, did not want the NFL to integrate.
During the Jim Crow Era, Baseball was America’s favorite sport. It allowed the NFL not to worry about integration as much as other mainstream sports. They used this unpopularity to purge all black football players out of the NFL. George Marshall was a leader among NFL executives and had some influence on decisions. He convinced the other owners to enforce a firm, but unofficial, color line in 1933. It is hard to believe, although true, there were no black players in the NFL from 1933 through 1946. One of Marshall’s famous quotes was
“I’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.”
The Washington Redskins remained an all-white team until 1962. It took a threat from the Kennedy Administration officials to boot the Redskins out of their stadium, (which was then owned by the Department of the Interior), if they did not change their out dated segregation policies. The decade long practices of George Marshall and the owners made people forget about the proud integrated beginnings of the NFL. Forgotten were the Fritz Pollards and Paul Robeson’s. In addition, the Dallas Cowboys were slowly becoming fan favorites in the southern states where the Washington Redskins had major control. This just added more fuel to the fire of the rivalry.
As the years have gone on, the issue of race has popped up from time to time in the NFL. The number of black players increased steadily over the years after the removal of George Marshall’s unofficial color line. Racism was diminishing and about 30% of the NFL players were African-American by 1970.
In today’s game, the NFL’s ON-field people is about a staggering 70% African-American. With African-Americans thriving in the NFL on the field, but one position seems to elude them. That position is quarterback. There were only four black quarterbacks starting in the NFL at the beginning of the 2012 season. That is only 12.5% of starting quarterbacks in the NFL. The weird thing is, 65% of starting quarterbacks in the college ranks are black.
Willie Thrower, who played for the Chicago bears in 1953, was the first black quarterback to take a snap from under center in the modern NFL. Although there were no rules against African-American athletes playing quarterback, they were few and far between. Most were just back-ups. Marlin Briscoe may have been the first regular starter when he played for the Denver Broncos in 1968. However, Warren Moon will go down in history as the first successful black quarterback in the NFL.
Moon started his professional football career with the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL where he spent five years. He started his NFL career at the age of 28 in 1983 with the Houston Oilers. He would go on to play in nine Pro-Bowls and earn an enshrinement into the NFL Hall of Fame in spite of his late start in the NFL.
Warren Moon paved the path for Doug Williams to take it to the next level, a Superbowl appearance and win. Williams led the Washington Redskins to a Superbowl victory in 1988, winning the MVP award and becoming the first black quarterback to win the big one. Despite his excellent performance in the Superbowl, the next season the Redskins replaced Doug Williams with Mark Rypien. This move brought up many hidden feelings about the days of George Marshall and his racism. This also led to the infamous Jimmy The Greek Snyder’s remarks,
“The black is a better athlete to begin with because he’s been bred to be that way-because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs. This goes all the way back to the Civil War when during slave trading, the owner – the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so he could have a big black kid.”
Behind closed doors, many NFL insiders and fans shared Snyder’s thoughts about race and football.
Throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s, black quarterbacks followed the path forged by Warren Moon. Quarterbacks Randall Cunningham, Steve McNair, Daunte Culpepper, Vince Young, Michael Vick, and a few others were all selected to the NFL Pro-Bowl. African-American quarterbacks took snaps for fifteen different teams during the 2007 NFL season. Fans are very critical of their favorite football team, especially the quarterback position. Some feel the criticism of black quarterbacks is more than their white counterparts. Such as the case of Rush Limbaugh in 2003 and his statement against the Philadelphia Eagles starting quarterback Donovan McNabb. He stated on a broadcast of ESPN’s NFL Countdown that he was not as good as the media portrayed him.
“I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media have been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.”
Flashes of the Jimmy the Greek’s remark from about 15 years earlier rushed back into people’s minds. As so, ESPN immediately fired Limbaugh. The statement did cause NFL fans to think about his words a little deeper. Since there were fewer African-Americans playing the quarterback position in the NFL, did we give them a pass? Did the NFL fan base allow them to play sub par and ignore their sorry play? I know as a Dallas Cowboys fan that I was very hard on Quincy Carter when he was the Cowboys starting quarterback. With the Philadelphia Eagles playing in the NFC East division, I remember plenty of conversations where their fans were harder on Donovan McNabb than they were on the entire defense. I guess it is all in who is leading the conversation.
With the Riley Cooper situation, this places a new spotlight on the NFL as it deals with today’s racial issues. Just saying the word, while being on record, is just the tip of the iceberg. It leads people to wonder: when the camera is off, what do players really say behind everyone’s back? How much racial tension is in your locker room waiting to explode? Sometimes in the heat of the moment, a person may spill their TRUE feelings about a person or race. With all the aggression in the game of football already, do we really need to add racial tension? My grandmother would always say,
“If you don’t make changes now, we are doomed to repeat history again.”