October 26, 2011

NFL's Jackie Robinson Little Remembered: An effort is afoot at Los Angeles' Lincoln High School to honor Kenny Washington, a graduate of the school who broke the National Football League color barrier in 1946. Washington, who played football alongside Jackie Robinson on the 1939 UCLA Bruins, played three seasons for the Los Angeles Rams after wrecking his knees during years of semi-pro football. "There isn't as much as a municipal park, street or plaza in Los Angeles bearing his name or marking his role in history," reports USA Today, but funds are being raised to renovate the school's football field as Kenny Washington Stadium.

posted by rcade to football at 08:53 AM - 7 comments

Sad that if asked 95% of people would know who Jackie Robinson is, but no one would know who Kenny Washington is. Glad to see him getting a little recognition.

posted by Debo270 at 11:20 AM on October 26, 2011

The lack of name recognition for Washington is surely due more to the relative positions of football and baseball in the national consciousness than any sort of slight to Washington. Baseball and MLB were then firmly entrenched as the national pastime throughout America, so there was some real relevance to the fact that its color barrier had lasted so long. Jackie Robinson's appearance in the big leagues had some real significance, both literally and figuratively, due to the high profile baseball enjoyed.

Conversely, football was, if not in its infancy, a relatively unknown commodity. The AFL was not yet formed, let alone merged with the NFL to create the cash cow that we have known since the late 60's / early 70's. For a black man to break down the NFL color barrier was of a profile equally low to that of the league. If nobody cares about the league, then nobody really cares about its color barrier being broken.

In a similar vein, how many Americans know the name Willie O'Ree? And how many of them just heard it recently, as te NHL has been actively promoting his accomplishment?

I agree that the NFL should do something to promote Washington, but I don't see it as any major fault that he is relatively unknown at this point in time.

posted by tahoemoj at 02:05 PM on October 26, 2011

Baseball and MLB were then firmly entrenched as the national pastime throughout America

Horse racing too. I'm sure that everyone knew who Assault was the year that Washington broke the NFL color barrier.

posted by beaverboard at 02:15 PM on October 26, 2011

Tahoemoj: Your theory does a good job of explaining why Washington wasn't a big deal then, but not why he's obscure now. Anyone under 50 has experienced Jackie Robinson strictly in how he's remembered. The NFL should make a bigger deal of this guy.

Interesting tidbit from his Wikipedia page: "Washington was a staunch Republican and strongly supported Richard Nixon's 1950 U.S. Senate campaign."

posted by rcade at 03:01 PM on October 26, 2011

The NFL should make a bigger deal of this guy.

No argument there. What he did took sand, high-profile league or not. And unlike baseball, his competitors would have had the opportunity to take physical cheap shots at him constantly to register their displeasure with having them among them.

My point was merely that it's neither surprising nor unfair that most aren't aware of Washington [yet].

posted by tahoemoj at 04:04 PM on October 26, 2011

The NFL should make a bigger deal of this guy.

It will if it can figure out how to make a lot of $$$ from it. Or devise a method through which it can benefit from a long-lasting PR plan, not just some weekend bounce.

I don't see the NFL making a big deal of this guy simply because it's the right thing to do. Just only if it can benefit from it.

I would like it if the NFL proves me wrong here.

posted by roberts at 07:50 PM on October 26, 2011

There is a case for the NFL doing something to promote Washington, but he was not the first black player in the NFL. As early as 1904 blacks were playing in what was the earliest forerunner of the NFL, and Fritz Pollard entered the league's immediate predecessor, the American Professional Football Association in 1920, becoming the first black coach in 1921. There was a smattering of black players until the 1930s. It was the entry of George Preston Marshall's segregated Boston Braves/Washington Redskins teams, coincident with a rise in racism during the great depression, that resulted in a ban on blacks.

The NFL hasn't exactly covered itself in glory, even in the years subsequent to WW2. One reason Washington was signed by the Rams was pressure from the African American community in Los Angeles that reminded the Rams that the Coliseum was supported by public funds, and by law a segregated team could not lease it. After this, the NFL was slow to sign blacks, and it was not until 1952 that every team, except for the Redskins, had at least one black player. The Redskins integrated only when the Kennedy administration threatened civil-rights action against the team that the Redskins finally signed a black player.

While the road to full integration of the NFL has been a long and difficult one, it did not start with Kenny Washington. He was the first to play in the modern era, but not the first overall. Jackie Robinson truly broke a color barrier, but Kenny Washington did not.

posted by Howard_T at 11:16 PM on October 26, 2011

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