MIAMI – Despite all of the money and effort the NFL has put into promoting its 100th season, there’s a part of the league’s history that has been conspicuously ignored.
Then again, given the league’s ongoing struggles with diversity, this shouldn’t really be a surprise.
For 12 years, from 1934 to 1946, there were no black players in the NFL. That’s right. For more than a decade, some of the most famous owners in the league’s history – George “Papa Bear” Halas, Art Rooney and Wellington Mara among them – had an unspoken agreement to ban black players.
“I did not know that,” Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland said this week. “That’s crazy to believe.”
And, yet, it’s really not. The ignorance that continues to keep minorities from getting jobs as coordinators, head coaches and general managers can be directly traced to the racism and bigotry that locked minorities out of the league for those 12 years.
“I do think that has an influence on minority hires,” San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said. “It’s just an old-school mindset that needs to be overcome.”
The NFL is hardly the only league with a racist past. But baseball at least has had the courage to confront its failings.
Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 was retired by Major League Baseball in 1997, and he’s honored each year on April 15, the day he broke baseball’s color barrier. Negro Leaguers, many of whom never had a chance to play in the majors, are eligible for the Hall of Fame.
The NFL, meanwhile, has a page on a website chronicling the reintegration of the league. It’s not on the NFL’s main website, mind you, but rather its operations website. There are no black players from that era enshrined in the Hall of Fame, nor is there anything to signify that the white players of that time didn’t necessarily face the best competition.
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“It’s part of our history. We don’t walk away from it,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday.
But it doesn’t embrace it, either. This, after all, is a league with a team that still refuses to give up its racist slur nickname, coined by original owner and avowed segregationist George Preston Marshall. Marshall, who bought into a Boston franchise in 1932, renamed it a year later and moved it to Washington in 1937, was a driving force in the ban, along with the fledgling league’s concentration in larger cities.
This would have been the perfect year for the NFL to call attention to the ban, as a means not just of educating people but acknowledging the wrong that was done and the legacy that it has left.
It could have done a commercial honoring the players who were locked out of the league during those 12 years, players like Kenny Washington and Woody Strode. It could have had throwback uniforms from the Pacific Coast League, where many black players played during the ban, or the All-America Football Conference, which ultimately forced the NFL’s reintegration.
Better yet, it could have had some special recognition during Super Bowl week in Miami, given that Cleveland Browns owner Paul Brown refused to bring Bill Willis and Marion Motley to a game in the segregated city in 1946 after the two received death threats.
“I didn’t know until later that we had been threatened,” Willis, who died in 2007, told USA TODAY Sports in 2006. “It was, ‘If you bring these (expletive) down here, something bad is going to happen.’ ”
Instead, the only recognition came inadvertently. And probably went unnoticed outside of Chicago.
In June, when the Chicago Bears unveiled the 1936 throwbacks they wore this season, Tarik Cohen and Kyle Fuller modeled them.
They were the first black players ever to wear that uniform.
“You cannot have a 100-year anniversary and omit that kind of history if you treasure the truth,” Rev. Jesse Jackson told USA TODAY Sports.
“They don’t have a right to deny 12 years of being locked out. They don’t have the right to deny what it cost us,” added Jackson, who said he has been stonewalled by the league when he’s asked about raising awareness of the ban. “We could have bought a team at $500,000 when the water was low. We couldn’t be coaches. We couldn’t be general managers. The whole infrastructure.
“We were locked out of all of that.”
The vestiges of that injustice remain.
Of the 31 team owners – the Packers are owned by the Green Bay community – all but one is white. When the Browns hired Andrew Berry this week, he doubled the number of black general managers. To two.
There are only four minority head coaches and, despite the many openings, only one minority has been hired in each of the past three years. Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has played a huge role in the development of Patrick Mahomes, and his two predecessors were quickly scooped up for head coaching gigs. Yet he has been passed over for, among others, a special teams coach, a recently fired college coach and two recycled NFL coaches.
On the field, blacks now play every position. But before Lamar Jackson was drafted, longtime league executive Bill Polian suggested he switch to wide receiver. The Baltimore Ravens quarterback is all but assured of winning MVP honors Saturday night in only his second season.
“There’s always been something about the NFL that didn’t appreciate black people,” said Louis Moore, an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State and author of “We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete and the Quest for Equality.”
“With segregation, it was black players in general. From then on, it’s always been about black leadership. They’ve historically felt uncomfortable giving black people places to lead.
“There’s just something the NFL continues to struggle with. ‘This is our guy, this is going to be our face,’ ” Moore added. “It’s just part of who they are, the NFL. They’re not willingly recognizing black leadership, black intelligence. They’re really fumbling this.”
Goodell acknowledged Wednesday that the NFL has fallen short when it comes to diversity and promised there will be changes. But the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching and GM jobs, is unenforceable. It trusts the owners will operate in good faith, favoring talent and ability ahead of skin color or a “feeling.”
But some of these owners watched as their fathers or grandfathers barred blacks from the NFL. The actions of others have made it clear they don’t see blacks as equals.
“The NFL has an opportunity, and an obligation, to make a break from the past,” said Jackson, who thinks ownership has to diversify for there to be meaningful change and has suggested that the next two teams that come up for sale go to minority owners.
To break from its shameful past, however, the NFL must first own it.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.