Integrating the Gridiron: Black Civil Rights and American College Football

Integrating the Gridiron: Black Civil Rights and American College Football

Integrating the Gridiron: Black Civil Rights and American College Football

Integrating the Gridiron: Black Civil Rights and American College Football


Even the most casual sports fans celebrate the achievements of professional athletes, among them Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Joe Louis. Yet before and after these heroes staked a claim for African Americans in professional sports, dozens of college athletes asserted their own civil rights on the amateur playing field, and continue to do so today.

Integrating the Gridiron, the first book devoted to exploring the racial politics of college athletics, examines the history of African Americans on predominantly white college football teams from the nineteenth century through today. Lane Demas compares the acceptance and treatment of black student athletes by presenting compelling stories of those who integrated teams nationwide, and illuminates race relations in a number of regions, including the South, Midwest, West Coast, and Northeast. Focused case studies examine the University of California, Los Angeles in the late 1930s; integrated football in the Midwest and the 1951 Johnny Bright incident; the southern response to black players and the 1955 integration of the Sugar Bowl; and black protest in college football and the 1969 University of Wyoming "Black 14." Each of these issues drew national media attention and transcended the world of sports, revealing how fans--and non-fans--used college football to shape their understanding of the larger civil rights movement.


Floyd Keith, head of an organization called Black Coaches and Administrators (BCA), considers the lack of African American coaches in college football “an outright disgrace.” For twenty years, the BCA has advocated for minorities within the NCAA coaching ranks, reminding fans of some startling figures. As of 2009, only 3.4 percent (that is, 4 of 119) of the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I) schools employ black coaches. BCA has even called on minority candidates to consider pursuing litigation under federal civil rights legislation should the number of black coaches remain so low.

Led by the BCA, along with sportswriters like William Rhoden at the New York Times, the debate over black coaches speaks to a remarkable transformation in collegiate athletics. Not only is 3.4 percent lower than the overall proportion of blacks in America (13.5 percent), it is also more than ten times less than the proportion of current college players who are black. In 1990, 37 percent of football players at major NCAA Division I schools were African American, despite constituting only 4 percent of enrolled students. A 2006 NCAA survey found that 19,667 black students competed for 616 football teams (32.7 percent); this figure does not include the hundreds of players who participated at historically black colleges and universities. In 2008, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport reported that the percentage of African American players on all Division I football teams stood at 45.9 percent.

Fan reaction to minority hiring in the NCAA often invokes a simple question: why are there so few black coaches when so many black students play football? For the many who listen to sports radio, read sports journalism, and follow their favorite teams, debates such as these make college sport a lens for examining complex issues like race, affirmative action, civil rights, and discrimination. Indeed, for some (often younger) fans, college athletics may be the only medium through which they have thought extensively about . . .

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