Column: The NFL should stop running from its racial history

Expect a lot of talk about the Super Bowl when the Los Angeles Rams take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Los Angeles on Sunday. First, the ‘Bucs’ quarterback Tom Brady is basically synonymous with the Super Bowl, and his team is the defending champion. Second, it’s kind of a preview, as LA will host the Super Bowl this season, for the first time since 1993.

February’s big game isn’t just a perfect opportunity to showcase the jewel in the crown, the $ 5 billion SoFi Stadium, which opened a year ago. It is also the logical time and place for the league to correct a historic injustice.


8:16 am sept. 24, 2021An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Kenny Washington was the first black player to sign a contract with the NFL. It was the first in the modern era.

How is it possible that in the city of Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers, the name of Kenny Washington inspires absolutely nothing?

Who is Kenny Washington?

Well, in March 1946 he became the first black player of the modern era to sign a contract with the NFL. The team? The Los Angeles Rams.

It’s a little-told story, especially considering that both Washington and Woody Strode, who signed with the Rams two months after Washington, were Robinson’s teammates on the UCLA football program. Although the Bruins retired Washington’s number and it is in the College Football Hall of Fame, it is nowhere near as celebrated by the NFL as Robinson is by MLB and by American culture in general.

And Washington even broke the color barrier a year before Robinson.

In fact, thanks in part to the success of Washington and Strode, Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey decided to remove racial barriers in baseball and sign Robinson. Two other pieces of information helped: In 1946, Marion Motley and Bill Willis did the same for the Cleveland Browns, then part of the All-America Football Conference.

What a tremendous piece of history, one worth celebrating by the most popular sports league in the country. What better way for the NFL to put a little more force behind the words “end racism” than to rescue the stories of these four black men in the Super Bowl, during Black History Month, in the same city Where did the NFL journey to “end racism” begin?

“Before you could tell the history of the NFL omitting this event, but not anymore,” said Keyshawn Johnson, a former NFL player who is the co-author of a new book on Washington and the others, “The Forgotten First,” featuring the Newsday football columnist Bob Glauber.

“There has to be some kind of date honoring these four men, in the same way that baseball made the decision to have Jackie Robinson Day,” Johnson said. “The commissioner and his team certainly should do something.”

Kevin Demoff, the Rams’ chief operating officer, said that when the team moved to Los Angeles, he began working with the Washington family to help promote its story. The Rams plan an event towards the end of this season to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Washington’s signing by the Rams. “I think Kenny’s story should be well told in the NFL and known by the players, the teams and everyone who loves the game,” he said. “All four players should have their stories out loud.”

So why isn’t the history of the integration of professional football already known?

“Soccer wasn’t as popular as baseball when Kenny and Woody joined the Rams,” Glauber said. “It just wasn’t getting that much attention. But the racism they faced was real. “

“The Forgotten First” is a beautifully written tale. Interviews with family members, along with details of behind-the-scenes politics, turn the manuscript from simply a sports book to one that touches on America’s complicated racial history, as well as how that unfolds today.

The light it casts is unflattering.

“The integration of the NFL was the lowest point of my life,” Strode told Sports Illustrated. “There was nothing nice about it. History does not know who we are. Kenny was one of the best backs from the history of the game, and today’s children have no idea who it is. “

“If I have to integrate into heaven … I don’t want to go.”

Passages like that are painful to read, especially knowing what we know about the seven decades that followed. Only last year did the Washington, DC franchise decide to stop using a racist slur as a team name.

Only by recognizing the obstacles can progress be fully appreciated. The NFL can provide that spotlight. If the league took a step in the integration story, millions would listen.

Glauber credits Paul Brown, co-founder of the Cleveland Browns with integrating that league: “He did it with a purpose. Not a civil rights purpose, but he wanted the best possible team and wanted to sign the best possible players. That was all”.

It’s strange, considering how brazen the NFL is when it comes to promoting itself, that it hesitates to vindicate this important moment in history. Maybe it’s because the league would have to talk about owners like George Preston Marshall, whom “The Forgotten First” quotes as saying, “We’ll start signing blacks when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.” The league may not want to remind fans that other owners agreed with Marshall or, as the book points out, were complicit.

Marshall, owner of the Washington team, “basically said you can’t play Washington with black players,” according to Jim Rooney, grandson of Steelers founder and owner Art Rooney. “My grandfather, new to the league, followed the rule that prevailed there, which he has admitted was the biggest mistake of his life.”

Jim Rooney’s father, Dan, chaired the NFL’s diversity committee that devised the “Rooney Rule,” a league policy that requires teams to interview minority candidates whenever they fill a leadership position.

The racial history of the NFL is uncomfortable to tell, as it is mixed with shame and pride. But it is also important.

Does the league want to do its part to “end racism” and commemorate the long-forgotten pioneers? What better place to start than the Super Bowl in the city where the NFL’s integration began?

To read this story in Spanish, click here