How Times Have Changed in Sports and in the Country

 
As hard as this might be to be believed by the more than 70 percent of Americans who were not alive in the pre-Civil Rights Act era, it is thoroughly conceivable that Notre Dame and Alabama might not have been allowed to play for a national collegiate football championship in Southern Florida back in the 1950s because Negro players were not welcomed in the south and other areas of the country. That would not have been much of a concern for the University of Alabama, because the school did not have a Negro, black or African-America player until 1971 (the last three Southeastern Conference schools to desegregate were the University of George, Louisiana State University and the University of Mississippi in 1972).

Wayne Edmonds was the first Negro to suit up for Notre Dame in 1953 and did play in the 1955 Orange Bowl in Miami.John Wooten was an outstanding player for Colorado between 1956 and 1958 and knows about racial discrimination in college football during those days. On January 1, 1957, Colorado and Clemson played in the Miami Orange Bowl, but it seems someone did not want Wooten, a guard, and receiver Frank Clarke playing for Colorado that day. The rest of the football team was welcomed in Miami.

John Wooten

“In 1957, there at Colorado, we were to play Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Clemson wanted to pull…we had two Negroes, me and Frank Clarke, were on the Colorado team and they wanted to pull the ‘old well we can’t play you because you have Negroes on your team.’ Our athletic director Dean (Harry) Carlson spoke up and said ‘you need to talk to the Orange Bowl because we aren’t going to leave our players at home’, these were the kind of things and people have spoke out,” said Wooten. “As I look back at it then and I say now just think of Dean Carlson and (coach) Dal Ward had come to us, well we are not going to take you to the Orange Bowl because of that. But instead, they took just the opposite. They said, hey we are coming to play; if you don’t want to play, then you talk to the Orange Bowl committee.”

Wooten did face an awful out of discrimination as a member of the University of Colorado football squad and then with the Cleveland Browns. But, he added that Carlson, Ward and Cleveland Browns coach, general manager and football operations director would have none of that.

“So we have seen it, fortunate for us, we were with teams where the leadership of the team said we are going to stay together. You are not going to separate us. Our black players are not going to go and have to stay with black families. They are going to stay at the hotel where we all stay. If we can’t go to the movies together, none of us go to the movies,” Wooten continued. “All of those things give you such a great substance of your life dealing with people because it keeps you from getting into this color thing.”

Wooten lost a teammate in 1962 when Cleveland traded Bobby Mitchell to the Washington Redskins in what was a straight football deal for a top draft pick that was forced by the Kennedy Administration. Cleveland got the NFL rights to Syracuse University running back Ernie Davis.

The Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, who never hid his racial views, did not hire any Negro players for his team. The federal government had decided to build a new multipurpose stadium in Washington for American League’s Senators to replace Griffith Stadium along with the Redskins. That stadium forced Marshall’s hand as President John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall pushed Marshall and made him obey legislation that prohibited discrimination in federal facilities. D. C. Stadium was a federal facility. Udall gave Marshall what amounted to an ultimatum, either hire Negro players or find somewhere else to play.

Marshall had a 30-year lease with the federal government and picked the Syracuse University star Ernie Davis to shut up the Kennedy Administration. He sent Davis to Cleveland for Mitchell and a first round pick after the 1961-62 NFL Draft.

Marshall was the last owner to desegregate his team. The NFL unofficially had a quota system in place limiting the amount of Negro players on each team. The NFL banned black players from 1934 to 1946, and there is some thought among NFL historians that Marshall’s purchase of the Boston Redskins in 1932 and his influence on other owners led to the policy. Marshall moved the Boston Braves/Redskins franchise to Washington in 1937.

Marshall’s Redskins ran onto the field to the song, “Hail to the Redskins,” which included a lyric “Fight for Old Dixie” that was eventually changed to “Fight for Old D.C”. The song also ended with the opening for Dixie.

It is thought that the NFL was forced to hire Negro players in 1946, when Daniel Reeves moved his Cleveland Rams to Los Angeles, and part of the lease agreement with the Los Angeles Coliseum included a clause that made the team hire Negro players. Two UCLA stars, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, became the first Negro players in the NFL since 1933.

In Cleveland, the All American Football Conference Browns led by Paul Brown set up show. Without fanfare, Brown signed Bill Willis, a defensive lineman, and running back Marion Motley. Brown and Vince Lombardi were friends and, in a way, civil rights pioneers. Lombardi brought Negro players to Green Bay, and Brown’s signing of Motely and Willis broke the color barrier.
“You go back, as different as they were (Brown and Lombardi) all the same because of the commitment they had. We are going to play the best players,” said Wooten. “Go all the way back to Paul Brown with the Motleys and Willises. Again he said we are going to play the best people and again nobody is going to tell us how to run our ball club.”Wooten said, while sorry to see his teammate leave, Bobby Mitchell was the perfect man for the job.”He was, and the reason why was, you needed a superstar. You needed a guy that people were going to see and he was that guy,” Wooten explained. “And, you needed a guy that was humble that was going to get caught up in things. DC was the world’s worst place as it relates to segregation and integration. Under the Kennedy Administration, we are not going to let you use a new stadium if you are not going to integrate this team. But no Bobby Mitchell was the ideal guy even though we lost a great player, but we picked up Ernie Davis even though he never played a down for us. What a tremendous human being.”Davis died in 1963 after being diagnosed with acute monocytic leukemia. Davis was the first Negron player ever to win the Heisman Trophy Award in 1962 as college football’s “best” player.”I said one of the reasons why the good lord took him early was that he was too great a person to be on earth. He was a tremendous person.”Dallas was not a very friendly city for Negro players either. The city got an NFL team in 1960.”Right there in Dallas, when we first started to play with Cleveland going to Dallas. The only hotel where we could all stay as a team was at a Ramada Inn out there by Love Field (airport),” Wooten said. “The other teams that came into Dallas, their black players stayed with black families. Paul Brown again, we said, hey we are going to stay right here, it had been a great tradition in Cleveland even when we were home to go to the movies the night before together. We stayed at the hotel the night before back in those days.”
“There in Dallas, nobody went to the movies. We have seen it being old like we are, we have seen the changes and they have been for the better,” Wooten laughed.Ironically Wooten finished his career in Washington in 1968 after nine years in Cleveland.
Hard as it might be to believe, at one time, Alabama and Notre Dame probably could not play for a national collegiate championship in South Florida and Robert Griffith III would have never played quarterback for the Washington Redskins and it wasn’t that long ago.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on “The Politics of Sports Business.” He can be reached at evanjweiner@gmail.com His book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available at www.bickley.com and Amazon.com.
 

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