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Black players in American professional football

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Title: Black players in American professional football  
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Subject: History of African Americans in the Canadian Football League, Black conservatism in the United States, History of the National Football League, Shelby Blues, History of the National Football League in Los Angeles
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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.

Early years

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, 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.[3] 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.[5]

By 1933, there were no more black players in the league.[6][7] The NFL did not have another black player until after World War II.

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.[8]


In 1939, [15][16][17][18] 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[19] 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.[20] 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.[15][20][21][22] Subsequently, the Rams signed Washington on March 21, 1946.[23][24][25] The signing of Washington caused "all hell to break loose" among the owners of the NFL franchises.[26] 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 All-America Football Conference.[27] 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.[28]

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.[29] 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.[30] 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 (American football). 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.[31] 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.)[32] Willie Thrower was a back-up quarterback who saw some action in the 1950s for the Chicago Bears.


Today, recent surveys have shown that the NFL is approximately 57–61% non-white, including African Americans, Polynesians (an anomalously high 1.7% of NFL players are American Samoans),[33] 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).[34]

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.[29][35] Brian Leonard of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is the only white halfback playing regularly in the NFL as of the 2013 season; Peyton Hillis was the only such player in 2010 and 2011, and there were none in 2009 or 2012.[36] As recently as 2005, no white halfbacks received a single carry,[37] and no white running back rushed for 1,000 rushing yards in a season between Craig James in 1985 and Hillis in 2010.[38][39] (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.[40] There are also allegations that racial profiling exists at the lower levels of the game that discourages white players from playing halfback.[41]

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.

See also


  1. ^ Ross, 1999, p. 40–45.
  2. ^ Peterson, 1997 p. 179.
  3. ^ a b Barnett, Bob (January 18, 2005). "Profile: Ray Kemp". Retrieved May 16, 2011. 
  4. ^ Minor difference in detail exists between authors (e.g., Piascik p. 2-5, Willis p. 314) Ross, 1999, p. 50.
  5. ^ McCartney, Robert (May 28, 2014). "1933 news article refutes cherished tale that Redskins were named to honor Indian coach". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 29, 2014. 
  6. ^ Davis, 2005, p. 98
  7. ^ Algeo, 2006, p. 38
  8. ^ Black players in minor professional football from the Professional Football Researchers Association
  9. ^ Wright, Alfred (September 24, 1962). "The Best College Player Of All Time". CNN. Retrieved May 16, 2011. 
  10. ^ Strode, 1990, p. 104.
  11. ^ Demas, 2010, pp. 28–29.
  12. ^ Strode, 1990, p. 142.
  13. ^ Peterson, 1997, p. 181.
  14. ^ Demas, 2010, p. 37.
  15. ^ a b MacCambridge, 2005, p. 19.
  16. ^ Levy writes that Washington's extra week in Chicago was only "... apparently at the private request of George Halas". Levy, 2003, p. 68.
  17. ^ Ross, 1999, p. 65.
  18. ^ Willis, 2010, p. 329.
  19. ^ MacCambridge, 2005, p. 41.
  20. ^ a b Levy, 2003, p. 92–93.
  21. ^ Davis, 2005, p. 202.
  22. ^ Strode writes the Los Angeles Supervisors also oversaw the Coliseum. Strode, 1990, p. 140.
  23. ^ Coenen, 2005, p. 123.
  24. ^ MacCambridge writes he was signed on May 4, 1946. MacCambridge, 2005, p. 19.
  25. ^ Ross, 1999, p. 82.
  26. ^ Rathet, 1984, p. 210.
  27. ^ Hall of Fame: African-Americans in Pro Football
  28. ^ Hall of Fame: Permanent reintegration of pro football
  29. ^ a b Rhoden, William C. (December 12, 2011). At some NFL positions, stereotypes reign. The New York Times. Retrieved April 25, 2013.
  30. ^   Foreword by Miller Farr.
  31. ^ Charles K. Ross (1999). Outside the Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League. New York University Press.  
  32. ^ Pergament, Alan (August 1, 2013). Briscoe, Harris featured on Showtime special about black QB pioneers. The Buffalo News. Retrieved August 1, 2013.
  33. ^
  34. ^ Thompson, Richard. Study: Hispanic NFL players earn highest average salary. The Daily Caller. Retrieved September 7, 2013.
  35. ^ Sheahin, Ed (December 18, 2009). The NFL white cornerback: officially extinct! Bleacher Report. Retrieved April 25, 2013.
  36. ^ Simmons, Rusty (April 24, 2010). Stanford running back Gerhart goes to Vikings. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2010-11-01.
  37. ^ Prisco, Pete (April 15, 2007). Draft preview: White men can't run? Don't tell Rutgers' Leonard. CBS Sports. Retrieved 2010-11-01.
  38. ^ Wilson, Allen (December 10, 2010). Obscure back finds his place with Browns: Peyton Hillis wins hearts in Cleveland. The Buffalo News. Retrieved 2010-12-10.
  39. ^ "Cleveland Browns Player Profiles: Peyton Hillis". NFL. Retrieved January 10, 2011. 
  40. ^ Silver, Matt (April 20, 2010). Race factors into evaluation of Gerhart. Yahoo! Sports. Retrieved 2010-11-01.
  41. ^ Hill, Jemele (September 30, 2008). Whatever happened to the white tailback?. Page 2 ( Retrieved 2010-11-01.


  • Algeo, Matthew (2006), Last Team Standing: How the Steelers and the Eagles—"The Steagles"—Saved Pro Football During World War II. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press.
  • Coenen, Craig R. (2005), From sandlots to the Super Bowl: the National Football League, 1920–1967. Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press.
  • Davis, Jeff (2005), Papa Bear, The Life and Legacy of George Halas. New York: McGraw-Hill
  • Demas, Lane (2010). Integrating the Gridiron:Black Civil Rights and American College Football. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Levy, Alan H. (2003). Tackling Jim Crow, Racial Segregation in Professional Football. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., Inc.
  • MacCambridge, Michael (2005), America's Game. New York:Anchor Books
  • Peterson, Robert W. (1997). Pigskin. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Ross, Charles K. (1999), Outside the Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League. New York: New York Publishing Company.
  • Strode, Woody; with Young, Sam (1990) Goal Dust. Lanham, MD: Madison Books.
  • Willis, Chris (2010). The Man Who Built the National Football League: Joe F. Carr. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Further reading

  • [1] Rozendaal, Neal. African-Americans in Hawkeye Sports, 1895-1961
  • [2] Rozendaal, Neal. African-Americans in Pro Football – NFL, 1920-1933.
  • [3] Rozendaal, Neal. Hawkeyes Revisited: Duke Slater
  • When Pride Still Mattered, A Life of Vince Lombardi, by David Maraniss, 1999, (ISBN 0-684-84418-4) * Lyons, Robert S. (2010). On Any Given Sunday, A Life of Bert Bell. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Brown, Paul; with Clary, Jack (1979). PB, the Paul Brown Story. New York: Atheneum.
  • Hession, Joseph (1987). The Rams : Five Decades of Football. San Francisco: Foghorn Press.
  • Lyons, Robert S. (2010). On Any Given Sunday, A Life of Bert Bell. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Pervin, Lawrence A. (2009). Football's New York Giants. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc.
  • Piascik, Andy (2007). The Best Show in Pro Football. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing.
  • Piascik, Andy (2009). Gridiron Gauntlet. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing.
  • Rathet, Mike; with Smith, Don R. (1984). Their Deeds and Dogged Faith. New York:Balsam Press.
  • Rooney, Dan; with Halaas, David F. and Masich, Andrew E. (2007). My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

External links

  • Hall of Fame list of Black players in the early years of the NFL
  • An Essay About Black Quarterbacks and the Wonderlic
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