Sunday, February 03, 2019

How the NFL Was Integrated

Apparently, the NFL was integrated a year before Major League Baseball, when the LA Rams signed former UCLA college standouts Kenny Washington and Woodrow Strode. It's never had the same cultural resonance as Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier -- probably because the NFL wasn't that big a deal in the 1940s.

But there's also a key difference in the narrative. In baseball, Branch Rickey looms large, and he represents White America's favorite civil rights story: White people, more or less out of the goodness of their hearts, deciding of their own initiative to do the right thing.

Yet the story of the Rams is different. The team leadership had no real interest in integration. Rather:
The Rams had just moved to Los Angeles from Cleveland, after smelling dollar signs on the West Coast. They needed a home and wanted to play at the L.A. Coliseum. But the stadium was publicly funded — owned by taxpayers black and white alike — and black sportswriters in Los Angeles successfully hammered local officials into requiring the team to integrate if the Rams were to play there.
This is the story where Black political power and influence moves the needle -- a different story, one with much more in common with the Black Power tradition than the sometimes overly moralized normative civil rights story associated (a bit unfairly) with Martin Luther King. The NFL was integrated because Black people in Los Angeles had sufficient clout to force it to happen. This isn't to say that there were no White players who were receptive audiences -- I have no doubt that the community had at least some allies among White movers and shakers in LA. But the central part of the story isn't White people choosing to the right thing, it's Black people being in a position so that it didn't much matter if White people wanted to do the right thing or not.

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