If you watched the Super Bowl pre-game show, you probably saw the National Football League and CBS shine a well-deserved and long-overdue spotlight on Kenny Washington, the West Coast football legend who signed with the Rams when they moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles in 1946.
The move wasn’t unusual simply because it made Washington, a star at UCLA in the late 1930s, a rare 28-year-old NFL rookie. In joining the Rams, Washington also became the NFL’s first Black player after 12 seasons of unofficial but intractable racial segregation.
The seven-minute clip is correct in the details it includes. That Washington played with Jackie Robinson is a point of fact, so was the public campaign, fronted by Black journalist Halley Harding, that resulted in the Rams signing him. It’s also true that he first played for the Rams in the fall of 1946, half a year before Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers. That’s a significant detail: portraying the NFL, last to segregate and first to reintegrate, as more progressive than Major League Baseball.
But that version omits a lot, and filling in the missing details changes the message.
After signing Washington, the Rams also acquired Woody Strode, a former UCLA star and future Calgary Stampeder, and hit the field in 1946 with two African-American players. The pair roomed together on the road, faced racism on and off the field, and left their short NFL careers traumatized by bigotry.
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Granted, the story of the NFL’s reintegration is obscure compared with Robinson’s epic. But if research leads you to advocates like Harding, it should also take you to Washington’s one-sentence summary of life on pro football’s racial frontier.
“If I have to integrate heaven,” he said. “I don’t want to go.”
It makes sense for the NFL and its broadcast partner to tell Washington’s story on this stage. Super Bowl LV took place in the first Black History Month since the slaying of George Floyd prompted governments and individuals to confront racism in new ways. This year Target is selling Black History Month t-shirts, and the UFC is positioning this month’s fight cards, with Black athletes in main events, as a celebration of Black history.
But if the phrase “reckoning on race” entails organizations wrestling with their racist pasts, centring the truth, and moving toward equity, the inclusions and omissions in this version of Washington’s story do something different. They seem less about confronting ugly history than rehabbing the league’s image.
That’s the NFL’s prerogative, since the Super Bowl is the biggest event on its calendar. And it’s CBS’s prerogative, since it spent big on broadcast rights and had an afternoon’s worth of airtime to fill. A Washington feature, even riddled with holes, beats one more story about the bromance between Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.
But it missed an opportunity to dig into deeper truths at play.
Washington’s experience contradicts the myth that racism recedes with time. Both the NFL and big league baseball started out integrated, gradually became all-white, and then stayed segregated. Washington wasn’t the NFL’s first Black player; the league’s colour line was just over a decade old when Washington crossed it. But if you think the passive march of time cures racism, remember that activism helped get Washington signed, and that racism persisted after he arrived.
Hitting the glass ceiling
The full details of Washington’s story also undermine the idea that winning, and the financial windfalls it brings, are enough incentive to force pro sports teams to find the best candidates and put them in a position to succeed. Washington starred in the semi-pro Pacific Coast league, alongside Strode and Ezzrett (Sugarfoot) Anderson, another future CFL standout. But none of them got a sniff from deeper-pocketed NFL teams until the Rams moved to Los Angeles and the local Black press advocated for Washington.
We know how that story goes in Canada. Herb Carnegie flourished in the Quebec Senior League but NHL executives could never find his phone number, even as they signed his white teammates.
And we know how the story unfolds in the contemporary NFL where, every off-season, qualified Black assistant coaches butt heads with the glass ceiling. Three of the four co-ordinators in Sunday’s Super Bowl — Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles and Byron Leftwich, and Kansas City’s Eric Bienemy — were African-American, and, barring unexpected job openings, none will begin next season as a head coach.
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles hired Nick Sirianni, who stammered through his introductory news conference and brought in a string of white assistants. The only Black candidate to earn a head coaching job this cycle was David Culley, who inherits the terminally dysfunctional Houston Texans, and whose promotion we could charitably label “backhanded.”
Or we could note that this year’s Super Bowl, with its renewed interest in Black history, played out as long-standing allegations of racial bias in the NFL’s landmark concussion class-action settlement made headlines again.
Sued over payouts
In August, retired running back Najeh Davenport and defensive end Kevin Henry sued the league, arguing that they were denied concussion settlement payouts because they are Black. And last week ABC News reported that several doctors in charge of assessing players for the cognitive decline that could qualify them for settlement money had grown frustrated with NFL guidelines they say made them factor a patient’s race into test scores.
The practice, known as “race norming,” was invented as a way to avoid over-diagnosing Black students as learning-disabled, correcting for the segregated, under-resourced schools they might have attended. But doctors mentioned in the ABC report complain that the practice handicaps Black patients’ test scores. It’s tougher to argue NFL-related head trauma caused low scores when race norming suggests Black people are prone to score poorly anyway, and the uncertainty can limit Black players’ access to settlement cash.
The league insists it doesn’t force doctors to consider race when evaluating potential settlement claims, but the ABC report points out that guidelines sent to doctors recommend a “full demographic correction” when assessing NFL retirees.
If the allegations sound ugly, it’s because they are. At best, it’s a misunderstanding between the league and doctors over the meaning of “full demographic correction,” an honest mistake that disproportionately harms Black NFLers. And at worst, the league’s recommending a policy it knows will limit settlement money for Black retirees living with cognitive impairment.
Either way, it’s more unsettling evidence of the extent to which race, and racism still shape the modern NFL. The pre-Super Bowl feature on Washington portrayed his signing as a happy ending, but that move merely allowed Black people to enter a playing field that the facts tell us still isn’t level.