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Details of the history of black players in American professional football depend on the professional football league considered: the National Football League (NFL), which evolved from the first professional league, the American Professional Football Association, or the American Football League, (AFL), a rival league from 1960 through 1969, which eventually merged with the NFL.
Charles Follis is believed to be the first black professional football player, having played for the Shelby Blues from 1902 to 1906. Follis, a two sport athlete, was paid for his work beginning in 1904.
From its inception in 1920 as a loose coalition of various regional teams, the American Professional Football Association had comparatively few African-American players; a total of nine black people suited up for NFL teams between 1920 and 1926. Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall were the first black players in what is now the NFL in 1920. Pollard became the first black coach in 1921.
After 1926, all five of the black players that were still in the subsequent National Football League left the league. Several teams were kicked out of the league that year, and with a large number of available, talented white players, black players were generally the first to be removed, never to return again. For the next few years, a black player would sporadically pop up on a team: Harold Bradley played one season with the Chicago Cardinals in 1928, and David Myers played for two New York City-based teams in 1930 and 1931. (Ethnic minorities of other races were also fairly common. Thanks to the efforts of the Carlisle Indian School football program, which ended with the school's closure in 1918, there were numerous native Americans in the NFL through the 1920s, most famously Jim Thorpe. The Dayton Triangles also featured the first two Asian-Americans in the NFL, Chinese-Hawaiian running back Walter Achiu and Japanese-Scottish quarterback Arthur Matsu, both in 1928.)
In 1933, the last year of integration, the NFL had two black players, Joe Lillard and Ray Kemp. Both were gone by the end of the season: Lillard, due largely to his tendency to get into fights, was not invited back to the Chicago Cardinals, while Kemp quit on his own accord to pursue a coaching career (one that turned out to be long and successful). Many observers will attribute the subsequent lockout of black players to the entry of George Preston Marshall into the league in 1932. Marshall openly refused to have black athletes on his Boston Braves/Washington Redskins team, and reportedly pressured the rest of the league to follow suit. Marshall, however, was likely not the only reason: the Great Depression had stoked an increase in racism and self-inflicted segregation across the country, and internal politics likely had as much of an effect as external pressure.
Most black players either ended up in the minor leagues (six joined the American Association and several others found their way into the Pacific Coast Professional Football League) or found themselves onto all-black barnstorming teams such as the Harlem Brown Bombers. Unlike in baseball, where the Negro Leagues flourished, no true football Negro league was known to exist until 1946, and by this time, the major leagues had begun reintegrating.
In 1939, UCLA had, arguably until as late as 1962, one of the greatest collegiate football players in history, Kenny Washington, a senior. Washington, an African American, was very popular, and his team had garnered national attention in the print media. After he played in the College All-Star game in August 1940, George Halas asked him not to return to Los Angeles immediately because Halas wanted to sign him to a contract with the Chicago Bears. After a week or so, Washington returned to Los Angeles without an NFL contract. Washington spent the majority of the early 1940s in the Pacific Coast League with the Hollywood Bears, even during World War II, during which he managed to avoid military service, thanks in part to a timely injury that forced him to miss the 1942 season but likely rendered him ineligible for service. Washington, after his injuries were healed, was a rarity in that he was a healthy, available athlete during a time when the NFL was resorting to using partially handicapped players ineligible for service, but received no interest from any NFL teams at the time. In 1946, after the Rams had received approval to move to Los Angeles, members of the African American print media made the Los Angeles Coliseum commission aware the NFL did not have any African American players and reminded the commission the Coliseum was supported with public funds. Therefore, its commission had to abide by an 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, by not leasing the stadium to a segregated team. Also, they specifically suggested the Rams should give Washington a tryout. The commission advised the Rams that they would have to integrate the team with at least one African American in order to lease the Coliseum, and the Rams agreed to this condition. Subsequently, the Rams signed Washington on March 21, 1946. The signing of Washington caused "all hell to break loose" among the owners of the NFL franchises. The Rams added a second black player, Woody Strode, on May 7, 1946, giving them two black players going into the 1946 season.
Even after this incident, racial integration was slow to come to the NFL; the first black player, George Taliaferro (who signed with the rival All-America Football Conference instead of the NFL), was not drafted until 1949, and only then in the 13th round of the draft. The AAFC, which formed in 1946, was more proactive in signing black players; in 1946, the Cleveland Browns signed Marion Motley and Bill Willis, and by the time the AAFC merged with the NFL in 1950, six of the league's eight teams had signed black players, most by the league's second season in 1947. In comparison, only three of the ten NFL teams (the Rams, Detroit Lions and New York Giants) signed a black player before 1950. The Green Bay Packers followed in 1950, but the bulk of NFL teams did not sign a black player until 1952, by which time every team but the Washington Redskins had signed a black player.
Marshall was quoted as saying "We'll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites." In spite of this open bias, Marshall was elected to the NFL's Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. As part of his "qualifications" for enshrinement, the hall says: "Marshall was totally involved in all aspects of his team's operation and endured his share of criticism for not integrating his team until being forced to do so in 1962." The Redskins had no black players until they succumbed to the threat of civil-rights legal action by the Kennedy administration. The Redskins eventually came through by signing Bobby Mitchell and two other African American players by 1962.
Even when the NFL did sign black players, poor treatment was evident. At the same time as black players were being reintroduced to the NFL, there was also an influx of players from the Southern United States, who held particular hostility toward blacks; this discouraged several black players from playing in the NFL, with some opting to go north to what would become the Canadian Football League, which was at its peak of competitiveness with the NFL at the time. Reportedly, black players routinely received lower contracts than whites in the NFL, while in the American Football League there was no such distinction based on race. Position segregation was also prevalent at this time. According to several books, such as the autobiography of Vince Lombardi, black players were stacked at "speed" positions such as defensive back but excluded from "intelligent" positions such as quarterback and center. However, despite the NFL's segregationist policies, after the league merged with the more tolerant AFL in 1970, more than 30% of the merged league's players were African American.
Conversely, the American Football League actively recruited players from small colleges that had been largely ignored by the NFL, giving those schools' black players the opportunity to play professional football. As a result, for the years 1960 through 1962, AFL teams averaged 17% more blacks than NFL teams did. By 1969, a comparison of the two league's championship team photos showed the AFL's Chiefs with 23 black players out of 51 players pictured, while the NFL Vikings had 11 blacks, of 42 players in the photo. The American Football League had the first black placekicker in U.S. professional football, Gene Mingo of the Denver Broncos (Mingo's primary claim to fame, however, was as a running back, and was only secondarily a placekicker); and the first black regular starting quarterback of the modern era, James Harris of the Buffalo Bills. (Marlin Briscoe, a wide receiver/defensive back for the Denver Broncos, also started several games as the Broncos' third-string quarterback at around the same time as Harris, but he returned to wide receiver after leaving the Broncos.) Willie Thrower was a back-up quarterback who saw some action in the 1950s for the Chicago Bears.
Today, recent surveys have shown that the NFL is approximately 57–61% non-white, including African Americans, Polynesians (an anomalously high 1.7% of NFL players are American Samoans), non-white Hispanics, Asians, and people of mixed race. This statistic is in contrast to the general population of the United States, which is 34% non-white. A small number of non-whites from outside the United States have also played in the NFL through the years, with notable examples from the past including running backs Rueben Mayes and Tim Biakabutuka (both Black Canadians) and Christian Okoye (Nigerian) and current examples including defensive linemen Israel Idonije (also a Black Canadian), Amobi Okoye (also Nigerian), and Osi Umenyiora (Black British) as well as fullback Jehuu Caulcrick (Liberian). All of these players, except Idonije, played college football in the U.S.; Amobi Okoye and Umenyiora played high school football in Alabama, where their families settled in their preteen years, and Caulcrick played high school football in Clymer, New York. Idonije's first exposure to the American game as a player came in the 2003 East–West Shrine Game, as he had played CIS football under Canadian rules at the University of Manitoba.
In recent years the halfback position has seen a dominance of non-whites, particularly blacks. As of 2012, no white players have secured a starting running back position in the NFL; Peyton Hillis was the only such player in 2010 and 2011, and there were none in 2009. As recently as 2005, no white halfbacks received a single carry, and no white running back rushed for 1,000 rushing yards in a season between Craig James in 1985 and Hillis in 2010. (James rose to prominence thanks to the United States Football League, which James played for as a member of the Washington Federals in 1983.) Brian Leonard and Toby Gerhart have yet to see significant action; Gerhart has alleged race was a factor in why four running backs were drafted ahead of him in the 2010 NFL Draft. There are also allegations that racial profiling exists at the lower levels of the game that discourages white players from playing halfback.
In other skill positions, 26 of the 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL are white, with only one black starting kicker among the 32 NFL rosters. Whites also slightly outnumber blacks at tight end and offensive line.