I came across this article that Michael Oriard, a former college and NFL player, wrote on football and integration. It’s six years old but very compelling. I read through much of Oriard’s books Reading Football and King Football while I was researching for my thesis.
Here’s an excerpt from the article:
Football has no Jackie Robinson, the lone racial hero whose achievement changed baseball forever and whose story is common knowledge thanks to the recent 50th anniversary celebration of his breaking the color line. Instead, the gridiron has William Henry Lewis, an All-American at Harvard in 1892; Paul Robeson, the first black student at Rutgers, who earned Phi Beta Kappa as well as All-American honors in 1918; Fitz Pollard, an All-American at Brown who played in the first integrated Rose Bowl in 1916; Duke Slater, another All-American, who played for Iowa in the late ’20s and later became a judge in Chicago; as well as Oze Simmons, Kenny Washington, Marion Motley, Bill Willis, and Levi Jackson—a collective “Jackie Robinson” who broke down racial barriers not in a single burst but a step at a time.
College football was integrated outside the South as early as the 1890s, but only marginally and unevenly. Lewis played for Harvard in 1892, but Princeton and Yale—the rest of the Big Three in football’s earliest years—had no black players until the ’40s (Levi Jackson’s election as Yale’s captain in 1949 warranted a front-page account in The New York Times). In any season before the Second World War, no more than two or three dozen African Americans played in what the black press called “mixed football.” Until UCLA fielded a team in 1939 with Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, and the one and only Jackie Robinson (with a fourth black player as a sub), no team had had more than a couple of black players at any one time.
Notre Dame, the “home team” for every despised immigrant in the ’20s and ’30s, had no black players before the ’50s. Army and Navy, as national institutions with numerous Southern students, were also late to integrate. The Big Six Conference (forerunner of the Big Eight and now the Big Twelve) officially integrated in 1947, the Missouri Valley Conference in 1950, the ACC in 1963, the Southwest Conference in 1966, the SEC in 1967. I’m old enough to have played (for Notre Dame) against Georgia Tech in 1969 and Texas in the 1970 Cotton Bowl, before those teams were integrated.
Read the rest of the piece here.
Oriard also put out a book this past summer called Brand NFL. It’s probably a must-read for anyone who wants a career in sports and marketing or sports and finance.