Date: Feature Week of
Blacks In Football
A Powerful Force Past And Present
Football is the business model for all of professional sports. Ownership in a National Football League (NFL) team is far more valuable than in any other sport. In today’s sports business, a sporting event is more than a game—it’s a valuable piece of programming. In addition to 70,000 butts in seats at Houston’s Reliant Stadium, the Super Bowl had a worldwide TV audience of a billion people. Fans paid $500 a seat and sponsors $2.3 million for 30-second TV ads.
Football is a team sport at which African Americans have excelled, but have experienced a history of exclusion from the field of play and ownership. Starting in 1892, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were the epicenters of Black college football. They were major Black social events and brought about the formation of the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) in 1912.
Pro Football originated in 1869, but Black contributions in the sport directly reflected the biases of American society. During the early years, African-Americans were banned from the NFL. The first known African-American to play pro football was Charles Follis in 1902. When Follis retired in 1906, he was replaced that same year by Charles "Doc" Baker, the second African-American pro-football player. Baker played two years with the Akron Indians.
In 1919, the American Professional Football Association (APFA) competed with the NFL. The APFA added more polish to the business aspect of the pro game. Both leagues signed Black players and merged in 1923. Between 1920 and 1933, thirteen Black players graced NFL rosters. Frederick “Fritz” Pollard, football's first Black superstar, was one. Paul Robeson was another. A gifted athlete whose future lay as a skilled baritone and political activist, Robeson helped take pro football to new heights. A legend in Black history, Paul Robeson was a standout professional in the 1920s. A college All-American, Robeson played professional football primarily to pay his way through law school. In 1921, Robeson played in 8 of 12 games with Akron, in the same backfield as Fritz Pollard.
Pollard had three years of action with the Akron Pros and became the first Black professional head coach. He went on to coach at Milwaukee (1922), Hammond (1923-1924), and again at Akron in 1925-1926. In 1928, Pollard and Dr. Albert C. Johnson organized the Chicago Black Hawks; an all-Black professional team which reigned as one of the game’s most popular teams from 1929 until 1932.
The NFL's early years were a quest for respectability. The professional game was overshadowed by college football in the 1920s and most college graduates found career pursuits in other avenues more attractive. Early NFL franchises were very unstable - between 1921 and 1932, 36 different franchises played in the league.
Black athletes made their own way from 1934-46, during the years of NFL segregation. Named in honor of Joe Louis, in 1935 the New York Brown Bombers became the most important all-Black team of the period. "Fritz" Pollard had moved to New York in 1933 and agreed to coach the team. Pollard is an inspiring story of athletic and entrepreneurial achievements - from being the first Black quarterback and head coach in the NFL to founding the first all-Black investment securities company.
When the NFL was reintegrated in 1946, Black players made an immediate impact in rushing, passing, and receiving. But, as African Americans gained more access on the field, they got no ownership in one of the best acts in business. The structure of the NFL business is that is of a cartel. A closed-circle of rich NFL owners has used a government-sanctioned monopoly to grow the Super Bowl from a mere championship game to an astonishing spectacle of modern marketing and media hype. Because of a $17.6 billion television contract the NFL signed with the major networks, football is, unquestionably, at the top of television ratings and programming. For example, in 1960 the revenues of the NFL and franchises were less than $20 million. Now, the NFL, and its franchises, garners combined annual revenues exceeding $5 billion.
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