October 5, 2022

Keyshawn Johnson’s history lesson started with a question. In 2020, Bob Glauber, a Newsday reporter, wanted to write a book about Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, whose signings by the Los Angeles Rams in 1946 broke the virtual ban on black players in the NFL.

Glauber thought he’d ask Johnson, who was an outspoken member of the Jets in the late ’90s when Glauber covered the team, about them. Johnson, like both players, is a Los Angeles native, though he played college football at USC long after Washington and Strode stood out on the same 1939 UCLA team as Jackie Robinson.

But Johnson said he had no idea of ​​their significance as two of the four black players to break the NFL’s color barrier. He didn’t even know that NFL owners had entered into a gentlemen’s agreement not to sign black players that lasted from 1934 to 1946. The ban, Johnson learned, was only broken after businessmen and journalists in Los Angeles pressured the Rams to sign Washington and Strode in 1946. Bill Willis and Marion Motley joined the Cleveland Browns that same year.

Johnson’s lack of awareness was a sign of how little the NFL had done to celebrate players. But that will change Saturday, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame presents its Pioneer Award to players’ families at its annual induction ceremony.

It wouldn’t have happened without Johnson and Glauber, who lobbied the Hall for the honor and wrote “The Forgotten First: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Bill Willis and the Breaking of the NFL Color Barrier,” the which was released in 2021. .

In a phone interview, Johnson and Glauber talked about why the history of the so-called Forgotten Four has gone largely unrecognized, the effects of the NFL’s racist past and the impact of giving the four pioneers their due.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condense.

Keyshawn, you wrote that you didn’t know about Washington or Stroud even though you played college football in the same Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum they played in when they went to UCLA

KEYSHAWN JOHNSON You know, when you think about it growing up, when you talk about African-American communities or black schools, there are only four black people in history: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman. I mean, it’s pretty basic. Jackie Robinson in sports. Jesse Owens in sports and a little Arthur Ashe sprinkled in. There is no real deep dive into the story. And when we get to college, we rinse and repeat again. They will teach us all about white history.

So when Bob brought this to my attention, it piqued my interest because it was in my backyard, within blocks of where I grew up. I had no knowledge of it because it just wasn’t discussed. There is a monument at the Kenny Washington Coliseum. But I don’t know if it’s up there in the Rose Bowl. I just don’t remember ever seeing it, and I go to a lot of games there.

One of the most fascinating sections of the book was the discussion of the implicit ban on signing black players. You point to George Preston Marshall, the segregationist owner of the Washington franchise, as the head of the ban, but note that the other owners went along with him.

JOHNSON It never happens with just one guy. You can’t call everyone racist, but when you tolerate and ignore and turn your head the other way, you’re just as guilty. You are as much to blame as those who started it. So it is in professional sports and politics today. Same thing, different years.

For decades, Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson and confronted the ugly legacy of that league’s color barrier. Why did it take so long for the NFL to do the same?

JOHNSON At the time, baseball was the number one sport in America when Jackie Robinson made his deal. Whereas in football you had Fritz Pollard [Pollard was the first Black head coach in pro football and won a championship as a player for the Akron Pros in 1920.] and then a break at a time when college football and baseball were bigger. The league tends to do a lot of things wrong and then try to fix them later, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that it could have gone completely over their heads.

BOB GLAUBER This is not a particularly fair story, banning black players. And now, black players make up about 70 percent of all NFL rosters.

That said, when we went to the league and looked for analysis and opinions, starting with Roger Goodell, he owned it. He said: “This history is true and we cannot change it and we have to accept it.”

The four players had divergent careers: Some lasted longer. Some lasted, in fact, very briefly. Do any of their personal stories resonate more strongly with you, Keyshawn?

JOHNSON It just has more to do with how some of their teammates treated them, good and bad. These stories always stay with me. How people like George Preston Marshall were vindictive against people but were still able to have a team and want black players to serve him. To me, it’s shocking. At the same time, these players are still fighting it and not letting it get the better of them or take their spirit away from doing things they want to do, which was to play professional sports. Motley was basically blacked out, unable to play or coach in the National Football League, but he kept fighting for it. That tenacity, that mental toughness is what it is to me.

Race remains a central tension in the NFL with Brian Flores’ suit alleging hiring discrimination, racial bias in the settlement of concussions and criticism that there are few team owners of color. So will these four Hall of Fame inductees change the dynamic?

Glauber This just seems like a sentimental conclusion to their story because the Hall of Fame honors them. But for me, it’s really the beginning of more awareness of who they were, what they did, and why they were so important because they’re not household names like Jackie Robinson. I don’t know if they ever will. But it should be.

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