When Branch Rickey bulldozed Major League Baseball’s color wall by signing Jackie Robinson in 1947, he also introduced the concept of integration into the modern era of American sports.
Two years later, the NBA welcomed black players. By 1958, even the National Hockey League had integrated its ranks.
It wasn’t until 1962 that the last of the NFL’s teams—notably, the one whose mascot remains a widely recognized, racist caricature—signed African-American players.
Today’s National Football League is fully integrated.
Close to 70 percent of its players are Black and there is one Latino and seven Black head coaches. Troy Vincent, a Black retired player, is the league’s executive vice president of football operations and widely considered Commissioner Roger Goodell’s right hand man.
The league’s unofficial blackballing of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and of player social justice protests alienated many fans and left some comparing the league to a modern plantation.
The NFL has the weakest player’s union among the four major leagues. Its players have the least power in free agency, are guaranteed the least money in their contracts and have the worst post-retirement benefits despite the fact the average NFL career is shorter and more dangerous than other pro sports.
The league’s owners are mostly billionaires and entirely white, while basketball and baseball (albeit not hockey) have scant black ownership interests.
How did we get here and is there any indication with ratings dropping and constant conversations about race, politics and protests that changes are on the horizon?
To answer these questions, it’s important to first look at the most critical moments for African Americans in the NFL’s racially-tinged history to see exactly where all this could be headed.
Segregation and George Marshall
Because of Jackie Robinson, baseball gets all the credit for shattering color barriers in sports.
But the NFL, which was started back in the 1920s, actually included a few black players at its inception. Remember, baseball was the country’s national pastime and while college football was certainly beloved, professional football barely registered.
Once it started to make a genuine impact in 1933, black players were unofficially banned. Then, in 1946, the Los Angeles Rams signed running back Kenny Washington as the first black man to infiltrate the league. It wasn’t until 1962, though, that the Washington Redskins (a nickname reviled for its origins as a slur against Native Americans) became the very last NFL team to integrate as owner, George P. Marshall begrudgingly caved in.
Marshall, a hardline segregationist, loathed the idea of black players in the league and it’s believed that he was a driving force behind the original unwritten ban. Although his team’s racist nickname endures, he probably turned in his grave in 1987 when Hall of Famer Doug Williams became the first African American quarterback to take his team—or any—to the Super Bowl.
Then there are those Black QBs
Colin Kaepernick is far from the first Black signal caller to get the cold shoulder from the league. Even after black players filled NFL rosters, becoming a QB was mostly unattainable.
James “Shack” Harris was drafted in 1969 by the Bills but almost quit football after being waived rather than play outside the position where he excelled during his college years at Grambling. By 1974, he was picked up by the Rams and led them to the playoffs before being benched in favor of Ron Jaworski.
The Steelers’ dynasty of the 1970s produced Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw, but Tennessee State’s Joe Gilliam beat him out for the starting job in 1974 (although Gilliam’s battles with drug addiction eventually derailed his career.) Even Hall of Famer Warren Moon went undrafted by the NFL in 1978, playing in the Canadian Football League for five years before the Houston Oilers signed him.
The Rooney Rule
By the end of the NFL’s 2001 season, Dennis Green and Tony Dungy—two pioneering black head coaches—had a total of two losing seasons in a combined 13 years of leading their teams.
Dungy’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers had made it to the playoffs but lost in the Wild Card round. Sill, none of that mattered. Both coaches were canned by their respective teams (Green ran the Minnesota Vikings’ sideline since 1992) shortly after the season.
Despite several head coaching vacancies, Green was forced to wait until 2004 before being hired by the Minnesota Vikings, while Dungy found work with the Colts. At the time, a group of civil rights advocates and lawyers, including attorney Johnnie Cochran, released a study showcasing the massive disparities between the opportunities offered to black and white coaches. The NFL’s solution: the Rooney Rule, named for Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, who initially chaired the league’s diversity committee.
Under the rule, all 32 NFL teams are required to interview minority candidates when senior football operations jobs are open (including head coach or general manager). On some levels, it’s worked: NFL teams have hired 11 minority head coaches since the rule was implemented, including the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, a Dungy disciple, who joined his mentor as the only black head coaches with Super Bowl rings. But some argue that the Rooney Rule has become ineffective and was simply meant to placate the outcry over the NFL’s hiring practices. After all, there’s only one black GM in the league today and some seasons multiple coaching vacancies are filled without one black hire.
Roger Goodell and His First Stint as Commissioner
Make no mistake: NFL players hate Roger Goodell.
His decade as commissioner has seen the NFL become the most popular sport in America as the league’s all-white ownership became grossly wealthy while its mostly-black players have lost their bargaining power. The year Goodell was hired to succeed Paul Tagliabue, the average value of all NFL teams as a collective was $898 million; this season, it’s more than $2.5 billion, with the league pulling in an estimated $14 billion in revenues.
That’s great for ownership, but not so much for players. Goodell negotiated the league’s current labor deal, which resulted in a brief 2011 player lockout and is guaranteed to be acrimonious when it expires in 2021. In exchange for being allowed back to work, the players union ultimately conceded on major issues like the commissioner’s disciplinary power and the division of revenues between ownership and labor, themes that continue to be a sore spot as debate rages over issues from player health to the league’s social responsibility
Goodell the Second Time Around
Goodell’s first decade made billionaire NFL owners even richer on the backs of many black players (thus the plantation motif), but his second decade begins in turmoil with race boiling at the center. This month, NFL owners handed Goodell a 5-year, $200 million extension (Goodell professes he will retire in 2024), despite worse-than-ever relations with players and a pending lawsuit against the league over the Colin Kaepernick’s blackballing.
For weeks, Black fans who remain angry over Colin Kaepernick’s unemployment have boycotted the NFL while many Black players continue to demonstrate for social justice during the national anthem. To try and settle the issue, Goodell presided over a meeting amongst owners only to have the Houston Texans owner Bob McNair allegedly refer to protesting players as “inmates running the prison.” Regardless, Goodell has kept his job and Colin Kaepernick is still without one. If the racial strife continues, it’s anyone’s guess how long this lopsided power structure might last without permanently damaging the NFL’s standing as America’s favorite sport.