Black history would not be complete without the contributions of African American athletes. Turn on any sports broadcast and you are likely to see blacks dominating the sports scene. With the exception of a few sports like hockey or some Olympic events like archery, the field of sports has opened wide for African American players during the last half of the 20th Century.
While athletes today are known as much for landing multi-million dollar contracts and endorsement deals as for playing, their predecessors were motivated more by opportunities to play the game. Sports fans idolize players like Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan (NBA), Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson (NFL) and San Francisco Giants’ Barry Bonds (MLB). However, they all stand on the shoulders of unsung heroes who literally got the ball rolling, but whose legacies have diminished over time.
Everyone remembers Jackie Robinson for breaking the color barrier in major league baseball, but his career actually began as a football player for the UCLA Bruins. A year before Robinson first put on a Brooklyn Dodger number 42 uniform, former Bruin team mates, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, broke color barriers of their own.
On March 21, 1946, Washington suited up for the Los Angeles Rams, ending the National Football League’s ban that had kept blacks from playing in the league for 13 years. Washington insisted that the Rams also sign Strode if the team wanted him on its roster. Together, they became the first black players in the modern NFL. Marion Motley and Bill Willis signed with the Cleveland Browns that same year. The four remained largely the forgotten heroes of professional football.
But while they were allowed to play, Washington and Strode were often targets for bruising play on the field by opposing players as well as teammates from the Deep South, according to Ross Greenburg, the Emmy award-winning filmmaker who produced a documentary on the players. In the end, Strode played with the Rams for just one season. Rams owner Dan Reeves objected to Strode’s interracial marriage and made it difficult for him to succeed on the field. Strode had better luck in Hollywood where he became a successful actor in such movies like “Spartacus.”
Washington ended his football career three years after breaking the color barrier when his knees finally gave out. Neither Washington nor Strode have been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but Motley and Willis, who had longer careers, were.
When the NBA finally formed in 1946, it did not take long for owners to recognize the skills of black players. The start of a new decade, 1950, may have been the most important year in the story of African-American players in the NBA. In a span of nine months in 1950, five black players would cross the NBA’s color barrier. Harold Hunter signed a training camp contract with the Washington Capitols; Earl Lloyd joined the Washington Capitols; Chuck Cooper joined the Boston Celtics; Nat Clifton joined the New York Knicks; and Hank DeZonie signed with the Tri-Cities Hawks.
Today, the NBA has the highest proportion of black players than any other sport. The number of black players in major league baseball has declined.