Professional sports might be considered "the toy department of life," as a sociologist interviewed for Breaking Racial Barriers in the NFL put it, but consider what happened just before the 1966 NFL All-Star game in New Orleans.
Several African-American players were repeatedly turned away from clubs on Bourbon Street because of their skin color, and after one bar owner threatened them with a gun, they decided to boycott the game in protest. Several other players joined in, the game was moved to Houston, and Louisiana lawmakers passed anti-discrimination legislation — to ensure the NFL granted an expansion team to the state.
There were black players in the NFL as far back as the 1920s, though the league was strictly whites-only from the early Depression years until 1946. As the NFL-authorized Breaking Racial Barriers illustrates, African-American players became more prevalent as time went on, and by 2007, they made up 65% of the league.
Things really began to change in the 1960s, in no small part because of competition from the upstart American Football League, which wasn't so bashful about letting black athletes play the game. Meanwhile, Cleveland running back Jim Brown – whose exploits on the field still amaze, over forty years later – wasn't shy about speaking out against racism in the game and in society as a whole.
It took even longer for black quarterbacks to gain acceptance in the NFL. Some saw occasional playing time in the 1970s, but the Houston Oilers' Warren Moon – who spent several years in the CFL after American teams wouldn't risk drafting him – proved that they were perfectly capable of playing the hardest position, and playing it exceptionally well. Finally, by 2007, we saw a Super Bowl in which both head coaches – Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith – were African-American.
It's pretty hard to tell the story of black NFL players in only 44 minutes, and Breaking Racial Barriers seems a bit short – though the DVD contains quite a bit of bonus material about prominent African-American players. (I was especially pleased to see a piece about Randall Cunningham, arguably the most exciting quarterback of his generation.) The NFL Films footage, as usual, is outstanding.
Breaking Racial Barriers, to its credit, doesn't gloss over some of the uglier incidents in the NFL's storied history. The Washington Redskins, for example, remained an all-white team until 1962, and only integrated itself – with great reluctance – after consecutive one-win seasons. But the film implies that race is hardly an issue at all in today's NFL – when, in fact, racial controversies fire up with depressing regularity. The National Football League has certainly come a long way, but every barrier hasn't been broken just yet.Powered by Sidelines