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Football (U.S.) - EARLY ORGANIZED SPORTS, FOOTBALL AFTER WORLD WAR II, INTEGRATION, POSITION BY POSITION

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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.

EARLY ORGANIZED SPORTS

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.

FOOTBALL AFTER WORLD WAR II

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.

INTEGRATION, POSITION BY POSITION

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.

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