Breaking Through the Frontlines

March 29, 2022

Briefs, News

The NFL (National Football League) has many Black athletes currently playing, but there was once a time when an unwritten rule did not allow any at all. From the 1930’s to the 1940’s Black players were hardly allowed on the field due to internal racism within the teams, organization, and fans.

In 1919, Fritz Pollard became the first Black man to work professionally in the NFL, playing for the Akron Pros. He also became the first Black head coach during the same time. Prior to joining the team, he had an outstanding season playing for Brown University and was the first Black man to play in the Rose Bowl. 

In 1923, Pollard left the Akron Pros and became the first Black quarterback for the Hammond Pros. He also organized the first interracial all-star game with NFL players in 1922. In 1926, he stopped playing and focused on coaching, until 1937.

From 1934 to 1946, there were no new Black players signed to the NFL due to a rule imposed by several owners at the time. George Halas, Tim Mara, Art Rooney, Tex Schramm, and George Marshall, created a silent pact  to avoid signing any more Black athletes or coaches into the league. 

In 1942, Professor Smith, from Nicolas College in Massachusetts, interviewed several of the owners about the decision to exclude black players and found George Marshall–founder of the Washington Redskins, now renamed the Washington Commanders–to be the major initiator. 

When Marshall was confronted about this in an interview, he said,  if Black players were allowed on the field, “White players, especially those from the South, would go to extremes to physically disable them.” He claimed the ban was in the best interest of Black athletes. While the explanation satisfied some, others were still convinced it was because of internalized racism.

The ban changed with Kenny Washington, the first Black player to join an NFL team after World War II. From 1940 to 1945, Washington played for the Hollywood Bears in the Pacific Coast Professional Football League. He became the highest-paid player within that league and even piqued the interest of George Halas who wanted him on his team, the Chicago Bears. Though Halas’ idea was never recognized because he could not convince the rest of the owners to agree to the inclusion of Washington into the NFL.

When the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles, they sought to play in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The team was required to be racially diverse because the coliseum was a public building paid for by both Black and White taxpayers. This was the catalyst for Kenny Washington being signed to the team in 1946, ending the 12-year ban of Black players.

Washington managed to pull off impressive feats such as leading the league in yards per carry in his second season, and scoring a 92-yard touchdown, a record that is still held within the team to this day. Washington and others following after him won over the hearts of fans and officials alike. It was because of their hard work and achievements that they managed to pave the path of more racial integration, slowly yet steadily.

Ian Valenzuela | | ASK Catalyst Writer

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