In my last post, I listed what most outside experts and historians claim are the reasons behind the NFL’s 1934 color ban – primarily, the Great Depression and George Preston Marshall. I also explained why those two justifications are a crock of hooey, post-hoc revisionist history that doesn’t pass the smell test.

Okay, so what was the real reason? Well, simply put: the color ban of 1934 was merely the continuation of a direction NFL owners had been moving in since 1927. Let’s take a closer look.

One Era or Two?

The biggest mistake these historians make – and you’ll see this all the time – is that they say that African-Americans played in the NFL from 1920-1933 and regard that entire time frame as one era. I mean, it’s easy to do. Black players played (1920-1933), then they didn’t (1934-1945), then they did again (1946-now).

But that’s an obvious mistake. Yes, African-Americans played in the NFL from 1920-1933…but their participation wasn’t constant, uniform, or homogeneous.

Twelve African-American players played in the NFL from 1920-1933. Here are how many black players were in the NFL each of those seasons:

1920 – 2 (Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall)

1921 – 4

1922 – 5

1923 – 5

1924 – 3

1925 – 5

1926 – 5

 

1927 – 1 (Duke Slater)

1928 – 2

1929 – 1 (Duke Slater)

1930 – 2

1931 – 2

1932 – 1 (Joe Lillard)

1933 – 2 (Joe Lillard and Ray Kemp)

You can see from the above chart that participation was much higher from 1920-1926 than it was from 1927-1933. After the initial NFL season in 1920 when there were just two black players, there were anywhere from three to five African-Americans every year from 1921-1926. But from 1927-1933, there were never more than two black players in the league in any given year. It’s truly two separate eras.

If we view it that way, more interesting notes pop out. First, of the 12 black NFL players prior to World War II, Duke Slater was the only one who spanned both eras, playing five seasons in both (Slater played from 1922-1931). Throw Duke Slater out for comparison’s sake, and the numbers are even starker.

Omitting Slater, seven of the remaining 11 pre-World War II black NFL players played in the first era (1920-1926); only four played in the second (1927-1933). The seven exclusively first era players combined for 24 seasons in the NFL, for an average career length of 3.4 seasons per person. The four exclusively second era players logged just six total seasons, an average of 1.5 seasons per person.

Five of the seven exclusively first era black players had careers of three seasons or more, with Fritz Pollard and Ink Williams lasting six years each. Conversely, every single one of the four exclusively second era black players played just two seasons or less.

It’s clear as day from this comparison that the participation of African-American players in the NFL suffered a dramatic shift in 1927. In 1926, there were five black players in the NFL; the following year, only Duke Slater remained. African-American players weren’t common in that first era, but there was a lot more participation, relatively speaking, from black players from 1921-1926 than there was in the second era.

What Really Happened?

This analysis completely alters the current view of African-American participation in the NFL. The commonly accepted view is that black players played (1920-1933), then they didn’t (1934-1945), then they did again (1946-now).

However, looking at things this way, we can see that in reality black players were rare but not unheard of (1920-1926), then they were almost completely shut out (1927-1933), then they were completely shut out (1934-1945), and then they slowly came back (1946-now).

But this analysis also completely undercuts the commonly accepted theory as to the causes of the color ban. If the NFL was trending toward exclusion of African-American players by 1927, then the common scapegoats blamed for the 1934 color ban – specifically, the Great Depression and George Preston Marshall – certainly can’t take all of the blame. After all, Marshall was not yet an NFL owner in 1927, and the Depression hadn’t started yet.

Another thing that you’ll note about African-American participation in the NFL in the first era from 1920-1926 is that most of the black athletes played for small-market teams. In fact, four NFL teams from the first era featured three different African-American players – the Akron Pros, the Hammond Pros, the Milwaukee Badgers, and the Rock Island Independents.

All four of these teams were smaller market teams that relied on African-American standouts to survive. You’ll note that the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, and New York Giants weren’t scooping up black players – they had no need for them. It was the desperate small market teams, teams that needed talent to compete on the field and a box office draw to survive off it, that signed most of these early African-American stars.

So what really happened in 1927? Well, in 1926, the NFL survived its first challenge to American pro football supremacy. Red Grange organized the AFL to directly compete with the NFL as the top pro football league in America. Grange’s league lasted just one season before collapsing, but the NFL was wounded by the AFL’s challenge.

The NFL responded by narrowing its ranks in 1927. In the early days, all you needed to secure an NFL franchise was to post a relatively paltry league entry fee, and you were in. In 1927, the NFL kicked out a lot of these clubs from smaller Midwestern towns and focused on big cities in the East and Midwest. It concentrated the pro football talent on the remaining teams, allowing the NFL clubs that survived to feature stronger talent across the board.

Unfortunately for African-Americans, the elimination of the small market teams that had supported them almost led to a color ban in 1927. Five black players played in the NFL in 1926, but all five played for teams that folded after that season. The only thing that prevented a color ban from coming down in 1927 was the fact that Duke Slater, a four-time all-pro lineman for the Rock Island Independents from 1923-1926, was picked up by the Chicago Cardinals after his team folded. Slater, who was in the prime of his career, was not only the greatest black player of his era but one of the top NFL linemen of any race in the 1920s, so the Cardinals quickly snapped him up when Rock Island went under.

Slater’s presence with the Cardinals delayed a color ban from taking effect in 1927. With the exception of Harold Bradley, a fellow African-American lineman Slater convinced the Cardinals to give a shot to in 1928, Duke Slater was the only African-American in the NFL from 1927-1929. He single-handedly held the door ajar, ever so slightly, for a couple other African-American standouts to briefly join the NFL in the early-1930s.

Even after Slater retired in 1931, the Chicago Cardinals were so pleased with how well he had fit in with their franchise that they promptly signed another African-American standout, Joe Lillard, for the 1932 season, prolonging black participation in the league for another two years. After two seasons with the Cards, the Chicago franchise cut ties with the fiery Lillard in 1933, and the color ban was under way.

Truth From Fiction

To summarize, the large market teams in the NFL had held a color line against black participation on their clubs for years. When the NFL reorganized in 1927, casting out most of the tolerant small market teams, the discrimination that already existed toward African-Americans among the higher-profile, more successful league teams became much more evident. It reduced black participation in the NFL from a rarity to one or two exceptions of a looming rule…a rule that would finally be enacted in 1934.

As mentioned in the previous post, post-hoc historical analysis of the color ban is a recent development. Noting that the color ban had started in 1934, historians looked at what was happening that year in football and around the country in an attempt to identify root causes of the ban. With the Great Depression having taken hold in the United States and with George Preston Marshall, a famous segregationist, assuming ownership of the Redskins franchise in 1933, those two were singled out as the fundamental causes for the 1934 color ban.

But that analysis ignored the reality that the movement toward a color ban started much sooner – league-wide at least since 1927, and among the top-tier large market teams, arguably from the very formation of the NFL. And maybe that’s why we’ve never taken a more nuanced view of the history of African-Americans in pro football. Ultimately, it reveals an uncomfortable truth: that the NFL’s color ban wasn’t the singular vision of a lone racist in Marshall. Rather, it was merely the culmination of a movement for which all league teams and owners deserved some share of responsibility.

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