IN 1969, 11 African-American students at the University of Alabama filed a lawsuit against Paul (Bear) Bryant and the university for failing to recruit black scholarship athletes. In his 93-page deposition for the suit, Bryant, Alabama's iconic football coach, defended his program, saying that for three or four years he had tried to bring in black players but had lost them to other schools. Hindsight—and old-fashioned research—indicates Bryant was telling the truth.
Bryant's role in sports' social revolution during the civil rights movement is the centerpiece of Breaking the Huddle: The Integration of College Football, an HBO documentary that premieres on Dec. 16. The engrossing one-hour show, which gives accounts of the desegregation of the ACC, SEC and Southwest conference, climaxes with Bryant's all-white 1970 Crimson Tide team playing at Birmingham's Legion Field against Southern Cal, with its strong nucleus of black players.
Breaking the Huddle does nothing to dispute the widely held belief that Bryant scheduled that game to show whites at Alabama and across the South the necessity of having black players to compete against the country's top programs. The Trojans routed Alabama 42--21 and a year later the Tide started its first black player; the school would win two national titles in the '70s with a large contingent of black players. Interviews with both blacks and whites who were around Alabama at the time—players, coaches, writers—paint Bryant as ahead of his time, a willing integrator thwarted by segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace. In 1965 Bryant told Look magazine, "We're not recruiting Negro athletes: that's a policy decision for others to make. But Negro players in Southeastern Conference games are coming."
Huddle is at times narrow in scope. It neglects, for example, to properly explore integration's flip side: the decline of football programs at historically black colleges. Instead, the movie delivers a singular message: Bryant as emancipator. More than a quarter century after his death, the Bear's legend continues to grow.