Everyone knows the story of Jackie Robinson, the preternaturally talented black ballplayer who bravely desegregated Major League Baseball in 1947, stoically enduring racist abuse while letting his play do the talking; Robinson was named Rookie of the Year and National League MVP and starred in six World Series with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie Robinson was a sports legend and a civil rights hero, fondly remembered today as one of the most beloved American citizens of the twentieth century. He is the only man ever to have his jersey number—42—retired by every Major League team.
But what if the story were more complicated? What if Jackie Robinson had been a football player instead? In fact, he was. Many who watched Robinson play college ball at UCLA insisted that his talents on the gridiron even exceeded his considerable skills on the baseball diamond. In 1939, Jackie Robinson led the entire nation in rushing yards per attempt, averaging a staggering 12 yards per carry. At the close of his UCLA career in 1941, Robinson participated in the annual All-Star Game, which pitted the nation's best college players against the NFL's strongest team. While the NFL Champion Chicago Bears won the game by a wide 37-13 margin, the fleet-footed Robinson ran circles around the Bears' unprepared defenders. Chicago defensive end Dick Plasman later said, "That Jackie Robinson is the fastest man I've ever seen in uniform. I thought [then-NFL star] Don Hutson was fast, but he could spot Don five yards and pass him by. The only time I was worried about the game was when Robinson was in there."21 Jackie Robinson may have won the Bears' respect, but his name went uncalled in the NFL draft. Though he was one of the best running back prospects to emerge from college football in the early 1940s, Jackie Robinson was black, and the NFL, like Major League Baseball, was a segregated league. Stymied by the NFL's policies of racial discrimination, Robinson abandoned his gridiron dreams to play in baseball's Negro League instead, and from there moved on to the Dodgers and his historic destiny.
But what if the story were even more complicated? What if two of Jackie Robinson's UCLA teammates, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington, had managed to break through the NFL's color barrier—becoming the "Jackie Robinsons of football," as it were—in 1946, one year before Robinson himself first ran out to play in Brooklyn's infield? Strode and Washington, whose rushing stats at UCLA were even better than Robinson's, got their chance to play in the NFL when the Cleveland Rams moved to the West Coast in 1946 and the commissioners who ran the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum wrote a provision into the club's lease requiring the team to be integrated. But Woody Strode and Kenny Washington didn't experience the same kind of success in the NFL that Jackie Robinson did with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Both players faced constant racial abuse from both opponents and teammates, and neither ever really got an opportunity to shine in the NFL game. Within three seasons, both had washed out of the league; Washington left football to join the Los Angeles Police Department, while Strode played for a few more seasons in Canada before launching a successful second career as a Hollywood film actor. Woody Strode and Kenny Washington were significant as racial trailblazers, but not, in stark contrast to Jackie Robinson, for their on-field accomplishments as pros. Over time, other black athletes followed in the two Rams' footsteps, so that by 1963, every NFL roster included at least one African-American player. But Strode and Washington mostly remembered their days in pro sports as a miserable struggle against deeply ingrained prejudice. In 1971, a reporter asked Woody Strode to reminisce about his experience as the first black man to play in an NFL game. Strode's response was telling. "If I have to integrate heaven," he said, "I don't want to go."22
But what if the story were even more complicated still? What if Woody Strode and Kenny Washington weren't really the first African-Americans to play in the NFL, because the NFL had included black players from the very moment of its founding in 1920? It's true. Fritz Pollard, a quick and elusive black halfback who had earned first-team All-American honors in 1916 while playing in the Ivy League for Brown University, was by 1920 the star player for the Akron Pros, one of the NFL's charter franchises. Pollard not only played in the NFL's first season, he led the undefeated Pros to the NFL's first championship. And the following season, he officially took over leadership of the team, becoming the NFL's first African-American head coach even while he continued to play every down as the team's best player. In all, Pollard played eight NFL seasons, winning posthumous induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005. And Fritz Pollard wasn't the only black athlete to play in the early NFL; at least 13 African-American players appeared on league rosters between 1920 and 1933. One of them was Paul Robeson, who has to be considered one of the most talented Americans—of any race—of all time. Before going on to achieve worldwide notoriety as a singer, actor, civil rights spokesman, and radical political activist, Robeson played three seasons in the NFL in order to earn money to pay his way through Columbia University Law School.
Historian Charles Kenyatta Ross, who has written a history of the integration of the National Football League, suggests that the league's early tolerance for a limited number of black players was rooted in pro football's marginal status in American culture at the time. As long as the NFL occupied a place on the unpopular fringes of the country's sporting life, teams could get away with breaching the segregationist norms of Jim Crow-era racial practice by using talented black players. Later, however, as the game became more popular and NFL teams found they had more to lose by alienating racially prejudiced whites, black players were slowly purged from NFL rosters. Ross suggests that Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, who was an influential leader among early NFL executives and also happened to be an inveterate racist, convinced the league's other owners to impose a firm (if unofficial) color line on the NFL after 1933. Zero black players appeared on NFL rosters between 1933 and 1946; even after Woody Strode and Kenny Washington began the process of re-integrating the league, Marshall's Redskins remained lily-white until 1962, when appalled Kennedy Administration officials threatened to boot the Redskins out of their publicly-owned stadium in the District of Columbia if the team continued its blatantly segregationist policies.
While George P. Marshall eventually lost his power to maintain the NFL's color line, the league-wide segregationist policy he instituted in 1933 did hold for more than a decade, shutting out talented black athletes like Jackie Robinson and creating the false impression that pro football had always been a white game. By the time the NFL's whites-only era ended in 1946, very few people even remembered the league's more racially tolerant origins; early black players like Fritz Pollard and Paul Robeson had been all but forgotten. Thus, while the struggle of Woody Strode and Kenny Washington to integrate the NFL appeared to be a battle against ancient racist traditions, it was in actuality a fight against quite recently constructed—though no less powerful—walls of discrimination.
Football's color line broke in 1946 and there has been no place in the game for overt racial discrimination since George Preston Marshall's Redskins were forced to abandon the principle of white supremacy in 1962. The number of African-American players in pro football has steadily risen ever since. By 1970, African-Americans made up about 30% of the league's players. Today, blacks constitute a significant majority—about 70%—of the NFL's on-field personnel. Still, a measure of racial controversy has continued to bedevil the league, even into the twenty-first century. Many of the modern NFL's most contentious issues regarding race have derived from the seeming existence of informal patterns of positional segregation within ostensibly integrated football teams. Even as African-Americans came to form a majority of the NFL population, certain positions on the football field—especially the most important and prestigious position, quarterback—continued to be filled mostly by whites. While there was never any official prohibition against black quarterbacks in the NFL, African American players long struggled to get a chance to shine in the game's most crucial and celebrated position.
The NFL's longtime shortage of black quarterbacks seems to have been a product of powerful racial stereotypes, operating at every level of the game to push white and black athletes to play different positions. Unlike sports such as basketball and soccer, which require every player to be able to perform all aspects of the game, football is a game played by highly specialized positional experts. Some players play offense, others play defense; some throw, some catch; some run, some kick; some block, some tackle. Every player is slotted into one particular position on the field and each position requires a narrowly specific skill set, developed over many years of practice. When a kid turns out to play football, his coach has to decide where to play him. Should he be a lineman, a halfback, a wideout, or a kicker? It seems that deep-seated American racial stereotypes, which assumed that blacks were naturally more gifted athletes while whites possessed superior mental capabilities, led coaches at every level of the game—from Pop Warner to the pros—to favor one race over the other for particular positions on the team. A talented young black athlete was likely to be viewed by coaches as possessing advantages in speed and quickness and thus developed into a running back, wide receiver, or defensive back. Meanwhile, a promising white youngster was likely to be seen as having mental sharpness and leadership qualities and thus groomed to play quarterback. Racial stereotypes thus became self-fulfilling prophecies, as black domination of the speed positions and white control of the QB spot seemed to confirm assumptions that each race had certain natural advantages over the other.
There was never any overt rule against black athletes playing quarterback in the NFL. As early as 1953, the Chicago Bears' aptly named Willie Thrower became the first African-American to take a snap behind center in the modern NFL era. Still, Thrower was a career backup, and for several decades black quarterbacks appeared on league rosters with stunning infrequency. No African-American became his team's regular starter at quarterback until the Denver Broncos' Marlin Briscoe in 1968. The NFL's first truly successful superstar black quarterback was probably Warren Moon, who began his career with the Houston Oilers in 1983 at the age of 28 after spending the previous five seasons playing for the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League. Despite his late start in the NFL, Moon won selection to nine Pro Bowls and the NFL Hall of Fame. In 1988, the Washington Redskins' Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to lead his team to victory in the Super Bowl, winning the game's MVP award by throwing for 340 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-10 blowout of the Denver Broncos.
Many hailed the Redskins' victory and Williams's impressive performance as a kind of civil rights milestone. But not even Super Bowl success could lay old stereotypes to rest. In the very same month that Williams led the 'Skins to victory, popular CBS Sports football commentator Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder sparked a firestorm of controversy by invoking the oldest of racist stereotypes. "The black is a better athlete to begin with," Snyder said, "because he's been bred to be that way-because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs. This goes all the way back to the Civil War when during slave trading, the owner-the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so he could have a big black kid."23 CBS, embarrassed by the controversy Snyder's raw comments generated, quickly fired Jimmy the Greek. But there is little question that many football fans, and even NFL insiders, shared Snyder's assumptions about race and football.
In the 1990s and 2000s, black quarterbacks became more and more prevalent in the NFL. Randall Cunningham, Jeff Blake, Kordell Stewart, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick, and Vince Young all followed in Warren Moon's footsteps by winning selection to football's all-star game, the Pro Bowl, at the quarterback position. In 2007, black quarterbacks took snaps for fifteen different teams, an all-time high.
But even today, black quarterbacks appear to be subject to a higher level of scrutiny and pressure than their white counterparts. As recently as 2003, conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who had been hired by ESPN to fill a kind of "Jimmy the Greek role" as a populist commentator on its NFL Sunday Countdown broadcast, suggested that McNabb—the superstar black field general of the Philadelphia Eagles—wasn't really as good as "the media" portrayed him to be. "I think what we've had here," Limbaugh said, "is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team." Like Jimmy the Greek fifteen years before him, Limbaugh was immediately canned by the network. But his comments resonated with a certain segment of the NFL fan base, which sympathized with his suggestion that the recent proliferation of black quarterbacks was somehow a product of "political correctness." McNabb responded to Limbaugh's comments with an understated call for a colorblind NFL. "It's sad that you've got to go to skin color," the quarterback said. "I thought we were through with that whole deal."