Politics can often find itself in sports. In the last century, football has often found itself wrapped up in the politics of the respective ages it is played in. One of the biggest issues in football history has been the issue of race relations. In football, like in baseball, the early 20th century was dominated by segregation. Black athletes were banned from taking the field in professional football. The NFL signed Jackie Robinson’s UCLA teammate running back Kenny Washington, who became the first African-American athlete to sign a contract in the modern NFL. He signed this contract in 1946 and began a tradition of a league in which 85% of running backs are now black.
The forefront of the struggle for integration happened in college football. College football teams began to integrate years before the pro leagues, but it mostly happened divided by geographical lines. Teams in the Northern US and California integrated by around 1953 although it started even before the 1930s when the first rush to integrate began. The south remained steadfast in not allowing black athletes to play for their teams or even in their stadiums for other teams. Bowl Games like the Cotton Bowl and the Orange Bowl remained segregated for years. This was the case because many of these southern schools like Alabama and Mississippi wouldn’t even allow black students in their schools never mind the football team.
Teams like Penn State and Syracuse integrated in the 1930s and 40s and it helped create a rich tradition and lore in the schools histories. In 1947, Penn State was invited to the Cotton Bowl after an undefeated season. But the team was told not to bring its black players, Wally Triplett and Dennie Hoggard. Their white teammates refused to play the game without the “whole team. Penn State rallied around their players and was allowed to play in the game with their whole team. The team played strong in the Cotton bowl and ended up tying with SMU 13-13. One of those players, Wally Triplett, ended up being the first African-American to be drafted and play in the NFL. It also would go down in history as the first integrated Cotton Bowl.
Syracuse University ended up having two of the greatest college running backs of all-time in Jim Brown and Ernie Davis. Jim Brown was one of the greatest runners in college football history but due to regional bias and his race he finished 5th in the Heisman Voting. In 1961, Brown’s successor Ernie Davis ended up being the first African American to win the Heisman trophy and it was written into the lore of football history. Both Brown and Davis found themselves in similar footsteps as Triplett and Hoggard, as they both had to make the horrible trip to Dallas to play in a bowl game in a city and a stadium that didn’t want them there.
In 1956 Bobby Grier from Pittsburgh became the first African-American to play in a deep south bowl game when he took the field in the Sugar Bowl. Teams in the ACC and SEC took years to integrate. Teams Like Maryland went first with Darryl Hill and other teams eventually followed after, but it was a long haul in the south. By 1972 schools like Alabama and Ole Miss, found they could not compete nationally without black players so the SEC was finally fully integrated. While it seems professional and college football have come a long way since the first days of integration, the leagues are still split by de facto segregation. This Sunday when the NFL season begins only 5 starting quarterbacks will be black. Nearly 99% of Cornerbacks will be black. 70% of the modern NFL is now black.
The issue of race will always impact football players especially as the league is now 70% and more. These players have inspired future generations to keep fighting for racial equality and players today continue to bring up the need to speak out for equality. The scars of racism and segregation still survive in our society and its handprint and legacy will always be America’s original sin. Yet as football takes on its role as America’s game, it will take on people damaged by these sins and needs to stand as a beacon of light to flock too and not a place where these issues will be ignored in 21st century America. Players like Colin Kaepernick are fighting the same fight players like Washington and Hill did years before, it’s just a much different fight in today’s America.