Randall Balmer: Can football save America?

  • Five members of the Los Angeles Rams who also played at UCLA pose at the Rams’ training camp in Compton, Calif., on July 31, 1946. Front row, left to right: Jack Finlay, guard; Nate de Francisco, guard; Woody Strobe, end. Back row, left to right: Kenny Washington and Bob Waterfield, backs. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 7/5/2020 7:00:14 AM

Sometime last month, in the midst of this nation’s long overdue reckoning with the issue of race, it appears that someone at the Southeastern Conference of the National Collegiate Athletic Association noticed that the state flag of Mississippi includes the battle flag of the Confederacy. The NCAA sent a notice to Mississippi schools warning that they would not be permitted to host championship events if the notorious “Southern Cross” flag is featured prominently.

Several days earlier, the commissioner of the National Football League, whose owners will never be mistaken for members of the Red Guard, issued a statement condemning “racism and the systematic oppression of black people.” Roger Goodell, the commissioner speaking on behalf of the league, went on to “admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.”

This is the same commissioner and the same league that was cowed into silence by Donald Trump’s incendiary blast at a 2017 rally in Alabama following the silent protest of police brutality on the part of Colin Kaepernick and other players. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag,” Trump yelled to a cheering crowd, “to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’ ”

Goodell’s apology stopped short of mentioning Kaepernick, the former quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers who led his team to the Super Bowl in 2013. Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem in September 2016 to protest police brutality. The nation’s president at the time, Barack Obama, defended Kaepernick several days later. “I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about,” Obama said.

Goodell, however, was equivocal. “I don’t necessarily agree with what he’s doing,” he said, acknowledging that American society isn’t perfect. “On the other hand, we believe very strongly in patriotism in the NFL. I personally believe very strongly in that.”

But the times, at long last, may be changing. Although Goodell’s recent statement failed to mention Kaepernick and the league’s apparent decision to blackball him (he hasn’t played since New Year’s Day, 2017), some NFL owners appear to have softened a bit.

For example, when the Detroit Lions announced that Sheila Ford Hamp would take over as principal owner from her mother, the 94-year-old Martha Firestone Ford, the new owner said that she would “completely support” signing Kaepernick if the coaches and general manager thought it was right for the team.

Even Trump has changed his tune. “I would love to see him get another shot,” the president said of Kaepernick.

Can football save America?

Of the four major sports in North America – football, baseball, hockey, and basketball – football, despite its well-deserved reputation for violence, has led the way in pushing for social change. The game, which evolved from rugby, was first played in a form we might recognize by the sons and nephews of Civil War officers at Northeastern schools, especially Princeton, Rutgers, and Yale.

To attain its near universal popularity, however, football had to confront what I call the three Rs – region, religion, and race – in order to expand beyond its white, Protestant, Northeastern origins.

The first football game south of the Mason-Dixon line took place in Raleigh on Thanksgiving Day, 1888, pitting Trinity College (now Duke University) against the University of North Carolina. The gridiron success of Notre Dame under Knute Rockne in the 1910s and 1920s allowed Roman Catholic players and their fans the satisfaction of beating the Protestants at their own game.

On the matter of race, the integration of football preceded that of other sports by decades. At the professional level, Charles W. Follis became the first African American player when he played for the Shelby (Ohio) Athletic Club in 1904. When representatives of 11 teams met in Canton, Ohio, in 1920 to form the American Professional Football Association, they chose a Native American, the incomparable Jim Thorpe, as league president. Two years later, the Oorang Indians, a team named for Oorang Dog Kennels in Marion, Ohio, joined the league, a team comprised entirely of Native Americans, including Thorpe.

African Americans had a tougher time. In 1916, Fritz Pollard, a running back, vanquished football powerhouses at Yale, Harvard, and Rutgers to lead Brown University to the Rose Bowl. In November 1919, Ralph “Fat” Waldsmith, owner and coach of the Akron Indians, asked Pollard to play a game against Massillon, the beginning of Pollard’s peripatetic career in what became the National Football League.

All told, 13 African Americans played in the NFL between 1920 and 1933. At the end of the 1933 season, however, NFL owners, including Tex Schramm, George Halas, Art Rooney, and Tim Mara, established a color line. Most evidence suggests that George Preston Marshall, owner of the Boston (later Washington) Redskins, insisted on the policy, but Pollard claimed that Halas “was the greatest foe of black football players.” The exclusion of Black players from the NFL persisted until after World War II. During the 1960s, however, coincident with the civil rights movement, the number of Black football players in the NFL began to increase dramatically; from 1960 to 1997, the percentage of African-American players on NFL rosters rose from 12% to 67%.

College football’s color line started to fade in the 1930s, beginning with a contest between New York University and the University of North Carolina in 1936 and a subsequent game between Duke and Syracuse two years later. Despite episodic advances in the desegregation of college football, however, Jim Crow maintained a tenacious hold in the South.

Greg Page arguably broke the color barrier in the Southeastern Conference when he walked onto the practice field for the University of Kentucky in 1967. That triumph was short lived. The entire defensive squad piled on Page during practice; he was paralyzed from the neck down and died 38 days later.

The last major holdout against racial integration in college football was the University of Alabama, under Paul “Bear” Bryant. His grudging decision to recruit Black players in 1971, however, led to a revitalization of his career and a record of 116-15-1 in the seventies.

Can football save America? No, probably not, at least not on its own. Football’s record on race is hardly pristine, but at various moments in its history the game’s overlords have risen to their better selves. We may be living in such a moment now.

Under pressure from the NCAA, the Mississippi legislature voted to redesign its 126-year-old state flag. The NFL commissioner now says, “We, the National Football League, believe Black Lives Matter. I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much needed change in this country.” Colin Kaepernick deserves a tryout and a job.

Then maybe we can talk about the name of the NFL’s team in Washington, D.C.

(Randall Balmer, a professor at Dartmouth College, is writing a book about sports in North America.)

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