Race in the NFL - Why Overt Racism Won't Survive

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This article is part three of a multi-part series tackling racial issues in the NFL. Over the next few weeks, Hank Koebler will be addressing many aspects of this sensitive and somewhat uncomfortable topic, one that many choose to discount, minimize, ignore or even accept exists.

Hank writes, "Recently my colleague Jayson Braddock wrote an article expressing his frustration with the media’s fascination with race in sports. At first I dismissed this fascination as the media’s tendency to look for trends and comparisons that don’t exist. However, after more thought I started to wonder just how much of a role, if any, race still plays in the NFL. A lot of pondering led me to realize that it plays a bigger role in the league than I would have realized if I had not thought about it."

Part 1: Tackling Racial Issues in the NFL - Comparisons of Players are Often Skin-Deep

Part 2: Tackling Racial Issues in the NFL - Does Race Affect Players’ Market Values?

Why Overt Racism is No Longer Economically Viable In Sports

At the end of the 19th century, professional baseball in the United States implemented what was known as a color line, where black players and white players did not play for the same leagues. The National Football League implemented an unwritten, informal agreement in 1934 not to sign black players. George Preston Marshall, owner of the Boston Redskins, moved the Redskins to Washington, D.C., in 1937, and declared that his team would not sign minority players, because his team was the “team of the south.” Basketball was segregated similarly: an example of this segregation took place in 1934, when University of Michigan coach F.C. Cappon allowed a black student named Franklin Lett onto his freshman team, but pressure from other schools caused him to eventually dismiss Lett. He wrote Lett a letter that said “there has never been a colored boy to play (varsity) basketball in the Big 10. It has been a mutual agreement between coaches not to use a colored boy”.

On February 13, 1920, former black baseball superstar Rube Fowler created the National Association of Colored Professional Baseball Clubs, also known as the Negro National League. By 1942, Negro League baseball was successfully competing with Major League Baseball - Wrigley Field was rented out to Satchel Paige’s Monarchs on May 24, 1942, and drew 29,775 fans, outdrawing all but one of the eight major league games scheduled for that day. Washington D.C.’s Negro League team, the Washington Grays often outdrew D.C.’s major-league team, the Senators. Jackie Robinson became the first black player in Major League Baseball in 1947, which led to the end of what was known as the “color barrier” in baseball. By 1954, over 100 black players had joined Major League Baseball.

At a high school level, sports were segregated as well. For example, in Texas, the Prairie View Interscholastic League was created for separate competition African-Americans in 1920, and was not integrated until 1970. Although there were a small number of colleges with integrated basketball teams, Southern universities usually avoided playing integrated teams by choosing not to have those teams on their schedule, or by requesting that the teams not use their black players. Between 1939 and 1949, not a single black player was on the roster of the NCAA champion team. In 1950, Duquesne center Chuck Cooper was the first black player selected in the National Basketball Association’s Draft, selected in the second round by the Boston Celtics. In 1948, 10 percent of major college basketball teams included at least one black player. That number rose to 28 percent by 1954, and 42 percent by 1962. In 1966, Texas Western, with a predominantly black roster, defeated the favorites, the all-white University of Kentucky team, in the NCAA basketball Final. Additionally, 1966 was the year in which Bill Russell become the NBA’s first black head coach.

In 1969, James Harris was the first black quarterback drafted in the NFL, taken by the Buffalo Bills and later traded to the Los Angeles Rams, who he led to three playoff berths. According to former NFL and Canadian Football League quarterback Warren Moon, black quarterbacks were often told to switch their position. When Moon, the MVP of the 1976 Rose Bowl, went undrafted in the NFL draft, he signed with the Edmonton Eskimos in the Canadian football league for six years, winning five league championships during those six years.

In 1984, Moon was signed to a five-year $6 million contract by the Houston Oilers of the National Football League. According to the Houston Oilers’ head of security, multiple death threats were made against Moon throughout his career, due to the quarterback’s race. Upon graduation in 1991 from Mount Olive High School in Mississippi, quarterback Steve McNair turned down offers from multiple other schools that wanted him to switch positions, and chose to attend Alcorn State University, the only school to offer him a scholarship as a quarterback. In his freshman season, McNair compiled a total of 3,199 yards combined running and passing in his freshman year, fourth-best in Division I-AA football that year. After the end of his college career, McNair was the third overall pick of the 1995 NFL Draft by the Houston Oilers.

In April of 2001, Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick was the first black quarterback ever selected with the first overall pick of the NFL Draft. In the 2001 season, there were 31 teams in the National Football League, and 20 black quarterbacks who were active players on an NFL roster. Out of the 12 teams in the 2000 playoffs, 5 had a black quarterback, and a black quarterback played in each of the two conference championship games that season.

The widespread popularity of Negro League baseball indicates that as a whole, players in the Negro Leagues were just as talented, if not more talented, than their white counterparts. Though there were an abundance of talented black athletes in American sports at the start of the 20th century, it was considered unseemly for high-paying professional sports leagues to sign black players because “owners felt the public would not like to see black players making more money than most white people.” That sentiment was most likely exacerbated by the economic difficulties of the Great Depression, which would explain why, despite the available talent in the Negro Leagues, no professional baseball team signed black player until Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, who “was determined to integrate the major leagues,” signed Jackie Robinson in 1947 in what was commonly referred to as “the noble experiment,” an attempt to determine whether an African-American player could succeed in the major leagues.

Robinson’s success and the eventual influx of black players into the major leagues set a precedent for desegregation in other sports. Basketball was the next professional sport to integrate, and the Boston Celtics broke basketball’s color barrier when they selected Duquesne center Chuck Cooper in the second round of the 1950 draft. After Cooper’s selection, basketball started to integrate at both the professional and collegiate level, as evidenced by the aforementioned data regarding diversity in collegiate and professional basketball.

After the integration of baseball and basketball, attitudes regarding race were most evident in professional American football. Though Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall both became the first black National Football League players in 1920, it wasn’t until 1969 that the NFL’s first-ever black quarterback was drafted. The prevalence of black quarterbacks is an excellent indicator of the social acceptance of black athletes, because the quarterback is often viewed as the leader of the team. Though up until the 1980s, most black quarterbacks either changed their position or played in the Canadian football league; by the 1990s black quarterbacks had a slightly less difficult chance of playing quarterback at a professional level. As Doug Williams, the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl, told Ebony magazine in October of 2001, “There are (simply) more African-Americans who have been given the opportunity to play the game and get credit for being as smart as they are athletic.” This increased opportunity made the sight of a black professional quarterback commonplace by the year 2000, as evidenced by the statistics regarding the frequency of black quarterbacks in the National Football League.

Without a doubt, the popularity and commercial success of Negro League Baseball paved a path for the integration of major sports in the United States throughout the course of the 20th century. After the commercial success of Negro League baseball, major league owners, particularly Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers, were willing to take a chance on the integration of major league baseball. Jackie Robinson’s success with the Dodgers led to an influx of black baseball players. The desegregation of baseball set a precedent for the desegregation of basketball, when the Boston Celtics drafted the first black NBA player in 1950, and the 1950s and 1960s saw a large rise in the number of black players in collegiate basketball as well. By the end of the 20th century, football had completely desegregated as well, even going so far as to commonly accept black players as the leaders of the team at the position of quarterback.

While this evidence shows that the blatant racism of the segregation era is gone, it doesn’t answer the question of whether race tints teams’ judgments.

Keep an eye out for next week's segment on this issue: Are Subconscious Biases Lurking?

Hank is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism. You may email Hank @ [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @ HankKoebler

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