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professional football

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.

At its inception in 1920, the American Professional Football Association had several African-American players (a total of thirteen between 1920 and 1933). 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. However, by 1932 the subsequent National Football League had only two black players, and by 1934 there were none. This disappearance of black players from the NFL effectively coincided with the entry of one of the leading owners of the league, George Preston Marshall. 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. The NFL did not have another black player until after World War II.

In the NFL, when the Cleveland Rams wanted to move to Los Angeles, it was stipulated in their contract with the Los Angeles Coliseum that they had to integrate their team, so they signed two UCLA teammates, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington, who were playing semi-pro ball in the area in 1946. Still, Marshall was quoted as saying "We'll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites." In spite of this open bias, Marshall was elected to the NFL's Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. As part of his "qualifications"' for enshrinement, the hall says: "Marshall was totally involved in all aspects of his team's operation and endured his share of criticism for not integrating his team until being forced to do so in 1962." The Redskins had no black players until they succumbed to the threat of civil-rights legal action by the Kennedy administration. The Redskins eventually came through though signing Bobby Mitchell and two other African American players by 1962. In 1946, the Cleveland Browns of a rival pro football league, the All-America Football Conference, signed two black players: Marion Motley and Bill Willis.

Even when the NFL did sign black players, poor treatment was evident. 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. Today, recent surveys have shown that the NFL is approximately 57-61% non-white (this includes African Americans, Polynesians, non-white Hispanics, Asians, and people that are mixed race.) Evidence shows that the general stereotype that "blacks run faster, jump higher and hit harder, but whites are smarter" is still prevalent, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. 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 league's 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; and the first black regular starting quarterbacks of the modern era, Marlin Briscoe of the Broncos and James Harris of the Buffalo Bills. Willie Thrower was a back up quarterback who saw some action in the 1950s for the Chicago Bears.

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