Black History of the NFL

Thursday, February 09, 2017 Written by 
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When the Patriot’s Tom Brady won the Super Bowl last weekend, he made history as the quarterback with the most wins.  He now has 5 rings and—with two more seasons to play—he could end up with 7.


This being Black History Month, it got me thinking about the history African Americans have made in pro football.  I am happy that the Rams have not only returned to L.A. and will play in Inglewood, but also that the team was the first to put black players on their roster after World War II.  


The history of African American football players actually dates back to1920, when Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall became the first to play for the American Professional Football Association (now the NFL).  Pollard also became the first black coach in 1921. There were nine black players in the APFA between 1920 and 1926, including, black activist, and internationally acclaimed artist Paul Robeson.


The NFL instituted a ban on black players in 1932. By 1933, there were no more black players in the NFL.  It remained that way until the Rams moved to Los Angeles and signed halfback Kenny Washington and wide receiver Woody Strode for the 1946 season.  They became the first black players on a major league football team after World War II.


Signing players of color, however, was not the Rams’ decision alone.  In fact, the African American press played a part in integrating the team.  The black print media made the Los Angeles Coliseum commission aware that the Coliseum was supported with public funds. The commission had to abide by an 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, by not leasing the stadium to a segregated team. 


James Harris, another Rams star whose career began with the Buffalo Bills in 1969, was the first black player to start a season as quarterback in the history of pro football. He was also the second black player in the modern era to start in any game as quarterback for a professional football team.   He paved the way for other black quarterbacks to follow, including Doug Williams, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson.


Today African Americans are prominent on the playing field, but there is still a lack of representation in coaching and general management.  If it had not been for the efforts of Dan Rooney, Pittsburg Steelers chairman, the number of black coaches and managers would be even lower.  Rooney advocated for the league to interview at least one minority candidate every time there is a coaching or general manager opening.  It became known as the Rooney Rule.


The rule helped make history on Feb. 4, 2007 when 2 black head coaches—Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears—went head-to-head in the Super Bowl. 


Before the rule went into effect, the NFL had only 6 minority coaches in more than 80 years. As of January 17, 2017, there were 7 African-American NFL coaches, including Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers. 


NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced last year at the first NFL Women's Summit that the Rooney Rule will expand to women for all executive positions.



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