'Integrating the Gridiron'

Nowadays, one can hardly imagine a college football scene devoid of African American athletes. While black students still make up just a small fraction of overall enrollments at Division I institutions, the football field is another story altogether: about half of Division I football players are African American.

June 23, 2010

Nowadays, one can hardly imagine a college football scene devoid of African American athletes. While black students still make up just a small fraction of overall enrollments at Division I institutions, the football field is another story altogether: about half of Division I football players are African American. But this level of integration is far from being the historical standard: as Lane Demas relates in the new book Integrating the Gridiron: Black Civil Rights and American College Football (Rutgers University Press), the sport's racial integration took place in fits and starts over the better part of a century.

The process began around 1888, when William Lewis joined the freshman team at Amherst College, and it didn't extend to all of the major college football teams until 1972, when the teams at the University of Mississippi, Louisiana State University, and the University of Georgia were finally integrated. Along the way, the struggles, scandals, and successes of integrated college football both reflected and impacted the broader civil rights movement. Demas, assistant professor of history at Central Michigan University, responded via e-mail to questions about his book.

Q: Why is this a particularly important time for "Americans [to] reacquaint themselves with the history of black student athletes"? On what issues can that history shed light?

A: Despite a long history of debate, criticism, and reform, Americans celebrate “big-time” intercollegiate athletics today more than ever before. After all, even President Obama (a bit facetiously) and certain members of Congress (more seriously) insist that revising the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) is an issue of national importance. Along with most fans, they want a playoff system that would likely expand the football season and make even greater demands on student athletes.

Meanwhile, on many campuses African Americans remain over-represented on certain athletic teams and under-represented within the larger student body. For example, in the last century the University of California at Los Angeles offered remarkable examples of racial integration via athletics, from Jackie Robinson to Lew Alcindor. We certainly celebrate these (especially vis-à-vis segregation at Southern institutions), but casual fans may not know that the number of black students at UCLA has dropped precipitously in the wake of Proposition 209. In 2006, only 2 percent of the freshman class was African American, yet the school’s highly-visible football and basketball teams continue to feature a much larger proportion of black students. In essence, we need to understand the historical role of athletics in contributing to diversity and challenging racial discrimination at America’s universities – but also how images of black athletes historically clouded our understanding of reality.

Q: How would you answer the question -- posed in the prologue -- "Why are there so few black coaches when so many black students play football?" How would you like to see this issue addressed?

A: That is a difficult question to answer. Obviously, playing the game at a high level does not necessarily translate into success as a coach, but still the vast majority of coaches were once players. To see so many African Americans playing football at Division I schools and so few black head coaches is problematic. From a historical perspective, it’s even more troubling because college football helped break down racial barriers in many regions, often outpacing professional football, baseball, and basketball. Yet in terms of recruiting black coaches and front-office personnel, the National Football League has been far more progressive than the college game. The 2003 "Rooney Rule" requires NFL teams to interview minorities for head coaching and senior staff positions: the league even fined one team (the Detroit Lions) $200,000 for failing to do so. By 2006, the percentage of black coaches in the NFL jumped from 6 percent to 22 percent (Over 70 percent of NFL players are African American).

Currently, college football has no such policy. However, in just the last year we’ve seen signs of significant change. Internally, some schools now mandate the consideration of at least one minority candidate, and as of this latest hiring season there are 15 African American head football coaches in the NCAA’s Division I (excluding historically black colleges and universities). In 2008 there were only 3, so progress has definitely been made. By the way, from the beginning there have always been successful black coaches in college football: William Henry Lewis coached at Harvard from 1895-1906.

Q: What was the "gentlemen's agreement" in college football, and how was it perceived by students and administrators?

A: This was the idea that college teams would bench their African American players when they traveled to play against segregated schools, which in turn would agree to play against black opponents for games hosted by integrated institutions. The term "gentlemen’s agreement" may connote that it was an implied, unstated rule discussed only behind closed doors, but nothing could be further from the truth. White and black sportswriters referenced it routinely (as did administrators), and any casual football fan could easily read about the role of race in negotiations between major college teams and the scheduling of games.

Before World War II, most students and administrators across the country (North and South) supported the agreement. It was a dramatic form of regionalism, which many believed college sport should promote: when you visit our school, not only do you play in our stadium, under our weather conditions, and before our fans, but you also abide by our rules and customs. Apart from changing notions about race, segregation, and civil rights, the "gentlemen’s agreement" began to clash with the desire for a game that was more national in scope – including a comprehensive ranking system, more intersectional play, and the rise of major bowl games at neutral sites.

Q: What is UCLA's significance in the history (and historiography) of college football integration?

A: From 1938-1941, UCLA’s football team sparked significant dialogue about race in the national press (and not just the sport pages). The team featured Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, who would go on to reintegrate the NFL in 1946, as well as Jackie Robinson, who excelled at four sports and later integrated Major League Baseball in 1947. The team was successful on the field (ranked among the top ten in the nation) and African American sportswriters anointed them “black America’s team,” insisting that the gentlemen’s agreement could not possibly apply to a squad so reliant on black athletes. (Two other African Americans were on the team, and between the five at least one was involved in nearly every play.) If segregated schools wanted to face UCLA, they would have to play against black athletes, regardless of where the game took place.

As a result, no Southern schools invited the Bruins to the South in those years, although some segregated teams visited Los Angeles (including Texas Christian University, the highest-ranked squad in 1938). In 1939, UCLA fell just short of reaching the prestigious, popular Rose Bowl and a scheduled game against the top-ranked University of Tennessee. Committed to segregation on the field and in the classroom, the Volunteers were prepared to decline the invitation if UCLA had made it, which at the time would have been an unprecedented move.

Q: What was the impact of the Johnny Bright scandal on the public dialogue over race and integration?

A: In 1951, Drake University’s renowned halfback, Johnny Bright, was severely injured after an opposing player assaulted him on the field during a game against Oklahoma A&M College [now Oklahoma State University] in Stillwater, OK. It was among the most dramatic visual displays of racism in the game’s history because Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs of the assault ran in newspapers nationwide, as well as Life and Time.

For many fans, the incident dramatically highlighted the degree of discrimination black athletes faced in order to participate in college sport. The fallout led to a crisis in the Missouri Valley Conference, which included both Drake and OAMC, as well as teams ranging from the University of Detroit to the University of Houston. This indicated how difficult it would be to continue building athletic conferences across the North-South barrier in the age of segregation. The assault was also noteworthy because it did not take place in the Deep South. Midwest locales, like Oklahoma, became central to debates over desegregating college sport right as they took center stage in the NAACP’s legal campaign to integrate public schools, including the landmark Supreme Court cases Sipuel v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma (1948), McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950), and Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

Q: What were some key ways that "public reaction to intercollegiate integration affect[ed]... the discourse of race"?

A: Actually, I found that the most interesting reactions to racial integration often came from people who cared nothing about sport and knew less about football. For example, in 1955 some white housewives in Georgia wrote letters to the press criticizing the growing hype surrounding the states’ football teams and applauding Governor Marvin Griffin’s attempt to ban games against racially-integrated squads. They could not fathom why Georgia’s white college students demanded that schools commit to "big-time" intercollegiate athletics, including scheduling contests with Northern teams and participating in bowl games. Yet from the perspective of many students, the debate wasn’t about segregation (which they overwhelmingly supported, but which was nevertheless a "political" issue, and Governor Griffin needed to focus on politics, not sport).

This was just one example of how racial discourse was transformed by culture. To some observers, sport was irrelevant to the issue. To others, it became a defining battleground. Ironically, in this case the students were on the winning side of history – their teams eventually faced African American opponents and embraced intercollegiate sport – but they were completely wrong about the nature of sport as depoliticized and its power to shape broader public sentiment and government policy. The housewives who cared little about the game actually attributed more significance to it.

Q: "...[I]f there is renewed backlash to college sport in the next 20 years," you write, "the most significant impact will be its adverse effect on black enrollment." Is this an argument for the maintenance of big-time university athletics programs?

A: No, this is not a call to field larger football teams and pay more attention to football games. (Is such a thing even possible?) Nor is it a complete rebuke of "big-time" college sport: I dutifully attend my university’s athletic contests, root for the home team, and every semester I work firsthand with African American students in the classroom who are satisfied with the educational opportunities afforded them by an athletic scholarship. I don’t see myself (or the book) as arguing one way or the other.

What I will say is that too many athletes (white and black) are still not graduating, too many programs treat high-profile participants as if they are professional athletes (not students), and too many schools are simply doing a lousy job of recruiting and retaining African American students. In 2007, the Census Bureau indicated that more than three times as many black people lived in prison cells as in college dorms. (For Hispanics the ratio was 2.7:1) We desperately need more minority students at America’s colleges and universities. There is no denying that sport helped increase minority recruitment at some institutions, and many black athletes use sport to obtain a college degree and enrich their lives. But obviously what is needed is quite clear, and it will require a far greater commitment to education on everyone’s part, from government entities to individual families.

Q: On a related note, you write that black athletes in college today "still struggle with a lack of diversity outside the athletic department." What else can and should be done to address this lack of diversity – and what role, if any, should be played by the athletes themselves?

A: Well, the easiest way would be to enroll more African American students who aren’t athletes. And that’s exactly what many athletes themselves have been saying for nearly 100 years. In 1939, Jackie Robinson and his UCLA teammates lamented the lack of black women on campus. By the late 1960s, black athletes at some universities protested until their schools recruited African American cheerleaders or marching band members. Some openly questioned why there were so few minority professors. Contrary to popular stereotypes, most student athletes are interested in joining a campus community, and some have to step way out of their comfort zones to do so. Everyone else – including professors and athletic administrators – need to step out of theirs as well, making classroom discussions relevant and accessible to diverse students, encouraging everyone to work hard towards the ultimate goal of graduating, and creating an inclusive social environment. I hear many gripes about notoriously impenetrable “jock cliques,” and yes I’ve taught those courses where half the football team showed up and seemed to move as one. But, alas, I still think professors are more likely to be inaccessible and subject to groupthink.


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