Sunday, August 14, 2011

The NFL, The Rooneys and Racism

    Racism. It's a word that causes an immediate reaction no matter what your background is. We see it in all walks of life in it's various forms. Thankfully, though, it isn't nearly the problem it once was. Sure, we have occasional situations of actual racism, this is still America after all, and it usually surrounds Blacks and whites. But, outside of what are essentially remote rural pockets of blatant racism, we simply don't see it to a great degree much anymore. I'm not speaking here of prejudice, by the way, that's alive, well and rampant. I will speak on things from that standpoint too, though. Here I'm speaking of actual racism: the belief that inherent differences among races can determine cultural or individual achievement or superiority.
    For 12 years that was the case with the NFL. Between the years 1934-1946 there was an unofficial ban on Black players. This was mainly because of racial fears amongst professional team owners. There had been Black players in what came to be known as the NFL before then, to be certain. In fact the history of the Black player in the NFL can be broken down into three eras: Initial Inclusion, Exclusion and Reintegration.
    Aside: African-American is, yes, the accepted moniker, but I'm a Black man. I was raised by a Black man to be a Black man, to be a man...one who has never been to Africa. So that is the term I will be using.
    From the birth of professional football to approximately 1918, two years before the NFL officially began, there were four Black players: Charles Follis, Charles "Doc" Baker, Henry McDonald and Gideon "Charlie" Smith who played all of one game. The most notable names to play during the NFL's formative years were amongst these select few. There were Fritz Pollard and Paul Robeson who came in 1919 and 1920 and played with Akron Indians (later Akron Pros). There was Robert "Rube" Marshall who played for the Rock Island team in 1919 as well. Fred "Duke" Slater started his career in 1922. In 1932 came the second true Black football star, Joe Lillard, who signed with the Chicago Cardinals, followed in 1933 by Ray Kemp of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the first Black player ever signed by them. That, though, was the last the NFL would see of the Black player until 1946, due in part to the Cleveland Browns. But more on that later.
    The exclusion of the Black player was now in effect. Naturally, though, any sort of ban official or otherwise was denied publicly by NFL owners. Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney, said, "For myself and for most of the owners I can say there was never any racial bias." He also claimed financial problems saying that there wasn't enough money for an adequate scouting sytem. (Imagine that, a Rooney poor-mouthing something...) Chicago Bears owner George Halas also denied by making a weak claim that there simply weren't any good or talented Black players during that time. Uh-huh... Look up the names Bernie Jefferson of Northwestern and Willis Ward of  Michigan, just to name two. Most telling might just be the then L.A. Rams owner Tex Schramm's statement on the subject when he said, "You just didn't do it. It was just something that wasn't done." This would definitely add weight to what the aforementioned Ray Kemp said regarding the unofficial ban when he said, "It was my understanding that there was a gentleman's agreement in the league that there would be no more Blacks." (read: complicity) The fact that there were no Black players during that 12 year period would seem to back that up.
    The reintegration of the Black player was due at least in part to the Cleveland Browns and in full to the AAFC. The NFL now was face-to-face with a league that could not only take players from them, but also revenue. The NFL saw that the AAFC was going to stand toe-to-toe with them and that they were going to be a desegregated league. The NFL blinked first. The Rams went out and quickly signed Woody Strode and Kenny Washington. Not long after would come the signing of Bill Willis and Marion Motley to the Cleveland Browns as stated before. (I know you're shuddering, Steelers fans, but it's true-you owe a bit of thanks to the Browns.)
    While outright racism may have become an issue of the past, prejudice hadn't. You still only saw Black players in certain positions. Those being defensive back, outside linebacker, running back and wide receiver (and we won't even touch on the "Blacks can't play quarterback" nonsense). Their collective play at those select positions brought great revenue to football, especially when you add the aspect of ticket sales being bolstered by the addition of the Black audience. But the sight of a swarthy face on the sidelines as anything but a player was nonexistent. Enter the Pittsburgh Steelers.
    In 1956 Lowell Perry began his short career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He played only six games with the Steelers before a serious injury ended his career. The Rooneys have shown themselves over the years to be fairly forward thinking with regard to prejudices. The attitude spoken of before regarding the "unofficial ban" needs to be considered in context: Art Rooney was a brand-spanking new owner in 1933 and was heavily influenced, as was the rest of the league, by Southern-born racist owner (of the Washington Redskins), George Preston Marshall. Marshall clearly wanted no Black players on his team and, as it was he who handled and headed the reorganization of the league in 1934, used his influential power amongst the other owners to quietly agree to be bigots. Jump forward 23 years and you have a Rooney who himself is now influential and recognizes not only the talent, but also the intelligence in Perry. Thus, in 1957, the Steelers hired Perry to be their receivers coach, making him the NFL's first Black coach. Perry went from there to being the talent scout in 1958. Then in 1966, after going back to school to earn a law degree, Perry was involved in another hiring first: he became the first Black color analyst for CBS Television when they hired him to broadcast Steelers games.
    The Rooneys would go on to pioneer frontiers in the NFL in other ways as well. The Rooneys realized that there was untapped talent in all-Black universities. By turning their focus that way, they found such gems as John Stallworth, Donnie Shell and Mel Blount to name a few.
    The Rooneys weren't done. They had a skinny defensive back to play for them from 1977-1978 who, after his career ended in 1980, was brought on to be their defensive backs coach from 1981-1983 and then their defensive coordinator from 1984-1988. That skinny defensive back was Tony Dungy.
     Dan Rooney in particular is noted as being instrumental in making it not only possible for more such coacing opportunities, but also for making it a priority. "The Rooney Rule" assures that ALL individuals have the chance to make their mark, sink or swim, on the head coaching front.
     Prejudice still rears it's ugly head now and then, and racism is like the Phoenix: just when you think it's dead, somehow it comes to life again to wreak havoc for a time. But the NFL seems to have exorcised their demons. And we have the Cleveland Browns, the AAFC and the Rooneys to thank for that.

UPDATE: Lowell Perry was not the first Black coach in the NFL. That honor belongs to Fritz Pollard who was co-head coach in 1921.