Black players in American professional football
Details of the history of black players in American professional football depend on the professional football league considered: the National Football League (NFL), which evolved from the first professional league, the American Professional Football Association, or the American Football League, (AFL), a rival league from 1960 through 1969, which eventually merged with the NFL.
Charles Follis is believed to be the first black professional football player, having played for the Shelby Steamfitters from 1902 to 1906. Follis, a two sport athlete, was paid for his work beginning in 1904.
From its inception in 1920 as a loose coalition of various regional teams, the American Professional Football Association had comparatively few African-American players; a total of nine black people suited up for NFL teams between 1920 and 1926. Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall were the first black players in what is now the NFL in 1920. Pollard became the first black coach in 1921.
1927 through 1933
After 1926, all five of the black players that were still in the subsequent National Football League left the league. Several teams were kicked out of the league that year, and with a large number of available, talented white players, black players were generally the first to be removed, never to return again. For the next few years, a black player would sporadically pop up on a team: Harold Bradley Sr. played one season with the Chicago Cardinals in 1928, and David Myers played for two New York City-based teams in 1930 and 1931.
In contrast, ethnic minorities of other races were fairly common. Thanks to the efforts of the Carlisle Indian School football program, which ended with the school's closure in 1918, there were numerous native Americans in the NFL through the 1920s and 1930s, most famously Jim Thorpe. The Dayton Triangles also featured the first two Asian-Americans in the NFL, Chinese-Hawaiian running back Walter Achiu and Japanese-Scottish quarterback Arthur Matsu, both in 1928, and the first Hispanic players in the NFL, Cuban immigrant Ignacio Molinet of the 1927 Frankford Yellow Jackets and Jess Rodriguez of the 1929 Buffalo Bisons, played in the NFL during this time frame.
1934 to 1945
In 1933, the last year of integration, the NFL had two black players, Joe Lillard and Ray Kemp. Both were gone by the end of the season: Lillard, due largely to his tendency to get into fights, was not invited back to the Chicago Cardinals, while Kemp quit on his own accord to pursue a coaching career (one that turned out to be long and successful). Many observers will attribute the subsequent lockout of black players to the entry of George Preston Marshall into the league in 1932. Marshall openly refused to have black athletes on his Boston Braves/Washington Redskins team, and reportedly pressured the rest of the league to follow suit. Marshall, however, was likely not the only reason: the Great Depression had stoked an increase in racism and self-inflicted segregation across the country, and internal politics likely had as much of an effect as external pressure. Marshall's hostility was specifically directed at the black race; he openly allowed (and promoted) Native Americans on his team, including his first head coach, Lone Star Dietz, widely believed to be a Native American at the time. The choice of Redskins as his team name in 1933 was in part to maintain the native connotations that came with the previous team's name, the Boston Braves.
Most black players either ended up in the minor leagues (six joined the American Association and several others found their way into the Pacific Coast Professional Football League) or found themselves onto all-black barnstorming teams such as the Harlem Brown Bombers. Unlike in baseball, where the Negro Leagues flourished, no true football Negro league was known to exist until 1946, and by this time, the major leagues had begun reintegrating.
In 1939, UCLA had one of the greatest collegiate football players in history, Kenny Washington, a senior. Washington, an African American, was very popular, and his team had garnered national attention in the print media. After he played in the College All-Star game in August 1940, George Halas asked him not to return to Los Angeles immediately because Halas wanted to sign him to a contract with the Chicago Bears. After a week or so, Washington returned to Los Angeles without an NFL contract. Washington spent the majority of the early 1940s in the Pacific Coast League with the Hollywood Bears, even during World War II, during which he managed to avoid military service, thanks in part to a timely injury that forced him to miss the 1942 season but likely rendered him ineligible for service. Washington, after his injuries were healed, was a rarity in that he was a healthy, available athlete during a time when the NFL was resorting to using partially handicapped players ineligible for service, but received no interest from any NFL teams at the time. In 1946, after the Rams had received approval to move to Los Angeles, members of the African American print media made the Los Angeles Coliseum commission aware the NFL did not have any African American players and reminded the commission the Coliseum was supported with public funds. Therefore, its commission had to abide by an 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, by not leasing the stadium to a segregated team. Also, they specifically suggested the Rams should give Washington a tryout. The commission advised the Rams that they would have to integrate the team with at least one African American in order to lease the Coliseum, and the Rams agreed to this condition. Subsequently, the Rams signed Washington on March 21, 1946. The signing of Washington caused "all hell to break loose" among the owners of the NFL franchises. The Rams added a second black player, Woody Strode, on May 7, 1946, giving them two black players going into the 1946 season.
Even after this incident, racial integration was slow to come to the NFL. No team followed the Rams in re-integrating the NFL until the Detroit Lions signed Mel Groomes and Bob Mann in 1948. No black player was selected in the NFL draft until 1949 when George Taliaferro was selected in the 13th round; Taliaferro signed instead with the rival All-America Football Conference. The AAFC, which formed in 1946, was more proactive in signing black players; in 1946, the Cleveland Browns signed Marion Motley and Bill Willis, and by the time the AAFC merged with the NFL in 1950, six of the league's eight teams had signed black players, most by the league's second season in 1947. In comparison, only three of the ten NFL teams (the Rams, Detroit Lions and New York Giants) signed a black player before 1950. The Green Bay Packers followed in 1950, but the bulk of NFL teams did not sign a black player until 1952, by which time every team but the Washington Redskins had signed a black player.
Marshall was quoted as saying "We'll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites." The Redskins had no black players until Interior Secretary Stewart Udall threatened to evict them from D. C. Stadium unless they signed a black player. The Redskins first attempted to comply by drafting Ernie Davis, who refused to play under Marshall; the Redskins in turn traded Davis to the Cleveland Browns. The Redskins eventually signed Bobby Mitchell and two other African American players by 1962.
Quotas limiting the number of black players were commonplace, and black players were often stacked into the same positions to allow them to be eliminated as a matter of competition. Reportedly, black players routinely received lower contracts than whites in the NFL, while in the American Football League there was no such distinction based on race. Position segregation was also prevalent at this time. According to several books, such as the autobiography of Vince Lombardi, black players were stacked at "speed" positions such as defensive back but excluded from "intelligent" positions such as quarterback and center. However, despite the NFL's segregationist policies, after the league merged with the more tolerant AFL in 1970, more than 30% of the merged league's players were African American.
American Football League influence
Conversely, the American Football League actively recruited players from small colleges that had been largely ignored by the NFL, giving those schools' black players the opportunity to play professional football. As a result, for the years 1960 through 1962, AFL teams averaged 17% more blacks than NFL teams did. By 1969, a comparison of the two leagues' championship team photos showed the AFL's Chiefs with 23 black players out of 51 players pictured, while the NFL Vikings had 11 blacks, of 42 players in the photo. The American Football League had the first black placekicker in U.S. professional football, Gene Mingo of the Denver Broncos (Mingo's primary claim to fame, however, was as a running back, and was only secondarily a placekicker); and the first black regular starting quarterback of the modern era, James Harris of the Buffalo Bills. (Marlin Briscoe, a wide receiver/defensive back for the Denver Broncos, also started several games as the Broncos' third-string quarterback at around the same time as Harris, but he returned to wide receiver after leaving the Broncos; Briscoe attributed the forced change of position to "95 percent" institutional racism, even in the more liberal AFL.) Willie Thrower was a back-up quarterback who saw some action in the 1950s for the Chicago Bears.
As of September 2014, NFL surveys revealed that the NFL is approximately 68% African-American, Polynesians (an anomalously high 1.7% of NFL players are American Samoans), non-white Hispanics, Asians, and people of mixed race. This statistic is in contrast to the general population of the United States, which is 28% non-white, although among the demographic that plays in the NFL (persons 21 to approximately 35 years of age) the proportion of the American population that is non-white is somewhat greater. A small number of non-whites from outside the United States have also played in the NFL through the years, with notable examples from the past including running backs Rueben Mayes and Tim Biakabutuka (both black Canadians), Christian Okoye (Nigerian) and fullback Jehuu Caulcrick (Liberian) and current examples including defensive linemen Israel Idonije (also a black Canadian), Amobi Okoye (also Nigerian), linebacker Ezekiel Ansah (Ghanaian) and Osi Umenyiora (black British). All these players except Idonije played college football in the U.S.; Amobi Okoye and Umenyiora played high school football in Alabama, where their families settled in their preteen years, and Caulcrick played high-school football in Clymer, New York. Ansah, brought to the United States by Mormon missionaries, first played American football at Mormon-run Brigham Young University after failing to make an impact in basketball, his sport of choice. Idonije's first exposure to the American game as a player came in the 2003 East-West Shrine Game, as he had played CIS football under Canadian rules at the University of Manitoba.
In terms of compensation, as of 2013, blacks and non-Hispanic whites are roughly evenly compensated; both positions are paid far less than Hispanics (the author of the study that determined this noted, based solely on anecdotal evidence, that there were a large portion of Hispanics at the quarterback position, a position that is generally compensated more than others, compared to Hispanics at other positions).
In recent years the halfback and cornerback positions have seen a dominance of non-whites, particularly blacks. There are currently no white cornerbacks in the NFL and there have not been since New York Giants and St. Louis Rams cornerback Jason Sehorn retired in 2003, and even Sehorn had converted to safety by the end of his career. Likewise, no white halfbacks have played regularly since Brian Leonard was dismissed from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the 2013 season; Peyton Hillis was the only such player in 2010 and 2011, and there were none in 2009, 2012 or 2014. As recently as 2005, no white halfbacks received a single carry, and no white running back rushed for 1,000 rushing yards in a season between Craig James in 1985 and Hillis in 2010. (James rose to prominence thanks to the United States Football League, which James played for as a member of the Washington Federals in 1983.) Toby Gerhart has alleged race was a factor in why four running backs were drafted ahead of him in the 2010 NFL Draft and has yet to see significant action, although this is in part because Adrian Peterson, one of the league's premier running backs, is on the same team as Gerhart. There are also allegations that racial profiling exists at the lower levels of the game that discourages white players from playing halfback.
In other skill positions, 23 of the 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL were white at the start of the 2013 season, with only one black starting kicker among the 32 NFL rosters. Whites also slightly outnumber blacks at tight end and offensive line. There are currently two African American punters in the NFL, Reggie Hodges for the Cleveland Browns and Marquette King for the Oakland Raiders.
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- History of African Americans in the Canadian Football League
- Rooney Rule
- Ross, 1999, p. 40–45.
- Peterson, 1997 p. 179.
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- Minor difference in detail exists between authors (e.g., Piascik p. 2-5, Willis p. 314) Ross, 1999, p. 50.
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