Football beat baseball to the color line

On the NFL

April 20, 1997|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

When the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles in 1946, it led to a chain reaction that started the integration of pro football a year before Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

To placate the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission and make it easier to get a lease, the Rams signed Kenny Washington, who had starred at UCLA in the late 1930s (Robinson was one of his teammates) even though his knees had been damaged playing in the Pacific Coast League. The Rams later signed one of Washington's teammates, Woody Strode.

Taking advantage of the departure of the Rams, the All-America Conference put a team in Cleveland in 1946 run by Paul Brown. He brought the usual all-white team to training camp, but when he needed a guard and fullback, he brought in Marion Motley and Bill Willis. He had coached them on military teams.

Unlike Washington and Strode, Motley and Willis were still in their prime and made the Hall of Fame.

But their arrival had none of the impact that Robinson's debut did. The NFL noted the 50th anniversary of their debut last year, but it got little notice.

That's because virtually nobody remembered the arrival of those four players. Pro football didn't get that much attention in those days. It couldn't even challenge college football, much less baseball, for the public's interest.

So the sport's integration did not register on the consciousness of American society. In fact, there were at least 13 blacks playing pro football in the 1920s and '30s before the doors were closed from 1934 to 1945. Nobody even knows what prompted the NFL ban during that span.

But it turned out that blacks were destined to have much more of an impact on football than baseball. Many minority youths have turned their back on baseball, but more blacks are playing football than any other sport.

Although black players make up a larger part of the NBA (80 percent) than the NFL (67 percent), the larger pro football rosters give football the edge in numbers.

This weekend's draft, when most of the top prospects were minorities, shows the trend is showing no signs of ebbing.

Off the field, the NFL has the same problem baseball does. There are no black owners, just three black coaches and few in decision-making positions in the front office.

But there are now questions being raised about whether the large number of blacks on the field is as big a problem as the small number in the front office.

U.S. News and World Report recently ran a cover story called, "Are Pro Sports Bad for Black America?" A recent book by John Hoberman, "Darwin's Athletes," explores the same topic.

Their argument is that the abundance of blacks on the field occurs not because they're better athletes than whites but because they don't think they have opportunities in other fields, so they gravitate toward sports.

The magazine points out that even though it's a 10,000-to-1 shot for a high school athlete to make it in the pros, 66 percent of black males 13 to 18 think they can become pro athletes.

Black parents are four times more likely than white parents to think their children are likely to become pro athletes.

The magazine quoted Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint as saying, "There is an overwhelming emphasis on sports in the black community, and too many black students are putting all their eggs in one basket."

These issues can be debated, but there's no doubt that football is now a magnet for black athletes.

Even Robinson's grandson, Jesse Simms, will be attending UCLA on a football scholarship, following in Robinson's footsteps. It's also his grandmother's alma mater.

Still, Simms says a sports career is not his No. 1 goal.

"I have no pro aspirations at all," he said. "I'm basically using football to get me into a school and move on."

The duel

When the St. Louis Rams traded for the No. 1 pick in the college draft Thursday so they could select Orlando Pace, one reporter marked Aug. 18 on a calendar and jokingly told John Shaw, the team president, that was the over-under date for Pace's signing.

Shaw laughed and replied, "Oh, that's too early."

Nobody will be surprised if Pace is a holdout because Shaw is noted as a tough negotiator and Pace's agent, Carl Poston, has no qualms about keeping his players out of camp.

Last year, he represented Tim Biakabutuka, the eighth pick by Carolina, and he had a long holdout.

The Shaw vs. Poston duel could be the Super Bowl of negotiations.

Owners are eager to stop the escalation of rookie salaries, and nobody is better than Shaw at holding the line.

Shaw's negotiations with Eric Dickerson probably cost Dickerson the chance to break Walter Payton's rushing record. Dickerson became so frustrated negotiating with Shaw that he demanded a trade and wound up in Indianapolis when the team was going nowhere and his career eventually went downhill.

Since the first pick usually sets the tone for the top of the round, the Shaw-Poston battle will be one to watch.

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