A History of Segregation in the NFL

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Of course an accursed Cowboys fan, like yours truly, absolutely loved this piece on the racism of storied Redskins owner George Marshall:


Still, in the early days of professional football, with teams like the Kenosha Maroons and the Staten Island Stapletons--nearly fifty different squads in the 1920s, many of which were able to stay in business only a year or two--the very idea of a pro football league was mocked. Baseball was the national pastime, already inspiring writers like Ring Lardner; college football was beloved in the places where it still is today (Ann Arbor, South Bend), and many where it's now an afterthought (the Bronx, New Haven). Boxing and thoroughbred racing rounded out the big four spectator sports of the day. Professional football barely registered. 

It is largely for this reason that the NFL, in contrast to major league baseball, had actually had a few black players--the owners were desperate enough to accept them, and the public just didn't care enough to lodge the usual protests about "mongrelization." But in 1933, the league suddenly banned black players. It did so secretively, and no one would ever own up to the decision. 

For decades afterward, none of the game's celebrated founding owners--George Halas of Chicago, Tim Mara of New York, Art Rooney of Pittsburgh, Tex Schramm of Los Angeles--would ever admit that there'd been a pact. But somehow, black players disappeared. Smith, a professor at Nichols College in Massachusetts, interviewed several owners and writes that evidence points to Marshall as the ban's instigator. In a 1942 interview, Marshall argued that if black players were allowed to participate, Smith writes, "white players, especially those from the South, would go to extremes to physically disable them," so they were kept off the field in their own best interests.

When Marshall died in 1969 he stipulated that his estate be used to found the Redskins Foundation. The Foundation was barred from spending money on "any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form."

This is all good stuff, as the Redskins are the only team truly worthy of a Cowboys fan's hate. Forgive but I'm scarred by the likes of John Riggins, Darrell Green, Clint Diddier, The Hogs and The Fun Bunch steam-rolling the Cowboys throughout the 80s. I'll take any extra reason to disparage them. 

Of course even this hatred has a wrinkle--and that would be the great Doug Williams. Being a Philly native, my Dad hated the Cowboys. He even became a temporary Redskins fan when Joe Gibbs brought in Williams. One of my fondest memories is checking out the 1986 Super Bowl with my Pops and watching him talk shit about Jay Schroeder and scream for Williams. It really wasn't possible to be black and not cheer for the Redskins on that day.

I wonder what Marshall would say if he knew, barely 20 years after his death, his team would host the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Progress is a machine.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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