The African American Experience in Professional Football

By Lomax, Michael E. | Journal of Social History, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

The African American Experience in Professional Football


Lomax, Michael E., Journal of Social History


University of Georgia

I

Because professional football has primarily been a post-World War II phenomenon, historical research efforts have been minimal. There have been a few investigations of the sport's prewar development. They have demonstrated that football teams in small towns - like Pottsville, Pennsylvania - provided a sense of community identification for its working-class residents. The Maroons also illustrated how these small town teams transformed from an amateur club, composed largely of local players, to a professional team recruiting players from outside the local arena. In contrast, clubs from Western Pennsylvania evolved from the efforts of upper class nouveau riche organizers, who sought to professionalize the game around the notion of a Victorian ideology. Research efforts have also examined the mythology that surrounded football stars, like Bronko Nagurski, and the meaning it gave for the lives of the people who made them their heroes.(2)

The investigation of prewar professional football is a bit complicated due partly to its regional origins. The game evolved from tough mine and mill towns in western Pennsylvania and Ohio in the 1890s, to large urban areas by the mid-1930s. By 1934, Green Bay was the only small city left in the NFL. Only a few works described the game's organized structure. Future scholars will have to rely on biographies, like those concerning George Halas or Jim Thorpe, or works done by journalists, like Tex Maule, in order to reconstruct the NFL's organizational efforts. Even more challenging is the fact that prewar football's social stratification transcended race, ethnic, and class lines. Clearly the game's significance and meaning took on a variety of forms given its saturation across different socioeconomic groups).(3)

The NFL's early years were also marred by its quest for respectability. The professional game was overshadowed by college football, which blossomed in the 1920s, and most college graduates found career pursuits in other avenues more attractive. Early NFL franchises were very unstable. Between 1921 and 1932, thirty-six different franchises played in the league, with as many as 22 in 1926. The newspapers all but ignored the NFL.

It was within this context that a small cadre of African Americans played in the NFL. Primarily amateur historians have done scholarship on the black experience on the gridiron. They highlight both the early black pioneers' contribution to the game and their athletic prowess on the field. For example, Joe Follis was the first known black player to play prior to 1920, a period that can best be described as professional football's semiprofessional era. Robert "Rube" Marshall played for the Rock Island team, while Fred "Duke" Slater starred for the Chicago Cardinals from 1926 to 1931.(4)

Both Frederick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard and Paul Robeson have received the most scholarly attention in the prewar era. John Carroll states that Pollard was one of the NFL's elite stars, and was the first African American to play in the American Professional Football Association. Two years later, that name was changed to the National Football League. One of Carroll's insightful contributions was the role of the head coach in the game's early years. Pollard, who coached the Akron Pros, had a limited role and he could not coach from the sidelines. The early NFL head coach had to sit in one place on the bench, while the team captain ran the game on the field.(5)

Paul Robeson was another standout professional in the 1920s. An All-American at Rutgers University, Robeson played professional football primarily to pay his way through law school. Scholars who interviewed Robeson indicate that he rarely reminisced about his days as a football player. Robeson reinforced the notion that professional football was a disreputable sport in comparison with its college counterpart. To the Rutgers All-American, professional football was a stepping stone to his eventual career as an actor and social activist. …

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