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The NFL's Jackie Robinson
October 12, 2009
He broke professional football's color barrier in 1946, yet even though he played alongside Robinson in college, few people remember the great running back Kenny Washington or the shameful history of segregation in the NFL
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October 12, 2009

The Nfl's Jackie Robinson

He broke professional football's color barrier in 1946, yet even though he played alongside Robinson in college, few people remember the great running back Kenny Washington or the shameful history of segregation in the NFL

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The actors took their marks, director Stanley Kubrick stood at the ready, and Woody Strode turned on the 100-yard stare he had deployed so effectively a decade earlier on the football field. By then, in late 1959, Strode had largely moved on from the frustration of his single season in the NFL. He and Kenny Washington, his teammate at UCLA, had broken the league's color barrier with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946, and since then Strode had cashed in on the physique that once made Leni Riefenstahl beg him to model for her. He had gone to Canada and won a Grey Cup and spent off-seasons barnstorming as a good-guy pro wrestler. Now he was in the movies, preparing for the scene in Spartacus in which he and Kirk Douglas are ordered to fight to the death. Suddenly Strode heard the voice of another actor in the cast.

"Woody Strode!" said Laurence Olivier.

"Yes, sir?"

"I'm a fan of yours and Kenny Washington's."

"I don't know what I'm doing here in your business," Strode said.

"What you're about to do," Olivier replied, "I could never do."

What Strode does in Spartacus—he subdues a fellow slave in one of cinema's epic one-on-one battles but refuses to kill him and is instead finished off by a Roman general, played by Olivier—emblemizes the ferocious, tragic grace with which Strode and Washington made history. Today those feats go essentially unremembered. Their NFL careers were brief and, in Strode's case, personally unfulfilling; both men had passed their primes when the league finally admitted them. But together they were to the NFL what their UCLA football teammate Jackie Robinson would be to major league baseball one year later: pulling guards in the sweep of history.

Baseball, bless its pastoral soul, offers a tidy and reassuring desegregation narrative. It's a story that reflects how we like to think of ourselves, as a society forever improving if not perfecting itself, and it offers ennobling roles for whites as well as blacks. We know the archetypes: commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, overtaken symbol of the bigoted past; Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, patron of a new day; Robinson, who fulfills his potential once given the chance. Robinson is one of the first men we see when we visit Cooperstown, at the very portals of the Hall of Fame, in life-sized bronze paired with the words CHARACTER and COURAGE.

By rights the NFL should be able to celebrate a history of abiding enlightenment. Whereas organized baseball began excluding African-Americans in 1898 and kept them out for the next five decades, pro football's Shelby (Ohio) Athletic Club paid a black man, Charles Follis, to play for it in 1904. In 1920 the Akron Pros' black quarterback, Fritz Pollard, was the first great star of the league that would two years later rename itself the NFL, and he even served as his team's player-coach. (Not just a black NFL quarterback, not just a black NFL coach, but both at the same time!) At the peak of African-American participation, in 1923, six players suited up in the NFL. But as the pro game grew in popularity, the ranks thinned to just two in 1933. The following year the league began a stretch of 12 all-white seasons that, Arthur Ashe writes in his survey of the African-American athlete, A Hard Road to Glory, has to be "one of the blackest spots on the record of American professional sports.... All NFL records should properly show asterisks beside any records made during this era."

How did the league come to bleach itself white? No single explanation entirely satisfies. Pro football had no strong commissioner like Landis, who categorically barred blacks. But in 1933 the NFL restructured itself into two divisions of five teams each, with a season-ending title game, which led to more media attention and presumably a desire to emulate baseball and its commercially successful formula of large markets and all-white rosters.

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