Pigskin Pioneers

Slow Racial Progress and a Cloud of Dust

To forget this history would not doom us to repeat it—that is unthinkable—but it skews our understanding of the sporting and social world we live in today. Recalling this history can help us comprehend, say, the disproportionate role athletics have come to play among young black males with few other prospects, and puts in context the current talk about black athletic superiority. Early in the 20th century, bad science had "proved" that African Americans were a physically inferior race. The triumphs of Jesse Owens and Joe Louis in the '30s exploded that myth but provoked another—one about blacks' "natural" ability in contrast to whites' hard work and determination.

Football's racial history can also help us recognize the tangled relationship between opportunity and exploitation. The early black football players at integrated schools—men like Lewis, Robeson, and Slater—tended to be remarkable students as well as athletes, but the '30s saw the start of the recruiting of talented black athletes with weak academic backgrounds, who had little chance of graduating. Football was a powerful force for integration, but powerfully limited as well.

There are countless great stories here, though most of them are more painful than exhilarating. Remember the Titans cannot distill much of this history, but in bringing to life a single triumphant moment near the end of football's Jim Crow era, it at least hints at the torturous decades that preceded it. In particular, it tells young viewers, both black and white, who have no memory of a time when the NFL and the NBA were not dominated by black stars, that the current arrangements are neither natural nor inevitable.

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