On This Date in Sports March 21, 1946: Integration in the NFL
In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
The Los Angeles Rams sign former UCLA star Kenny Washington, ending a 13-year period in which African Americans were kept out of the NFL. There had been black players in the NFL's early days, including Fritz Pollard, who was also a coach and key part of the Akron Pros winning the 1920 inaugural championship of APFA. The integration was apart of an agreement for the Rams to use the LA Memorial Coliseum in 1946 after moving from Cleveland.
Kenny Washington was born on August 31, 1918, in Los Angeles. His father, Edgar Washington, played baseball in the Negro Leagues. His uncle, Rocky, was the first uniformed black lieutenant in the LAPD. Washington was a multi-sport star at UCLA, playing baseball, where scouts viewed him as the superior player to teammate Jackie Robinson. Robinson and Washington also teamed together in the backfield for the Bruins football team.
George Halas had expressed interest in signing Kenny Washington in 1941 but could not convince the other owners to allow integration. The NFL, which began play as the American Professional Football Association in 1920, did not always prohibit players of color. In the days when the league was a loose affiliation of teams, players like Fritz Pollard, who coached the Akron Pros in 1921, were prominent. In total, nine African Americans played in the NFL's first decade, including Paul Robeson, Duke Slater, and Joe Lillard.
In 1932, the Boston Braves, who later became the Redskins were founded by George Preston Marshall. Marshall quickly became one of the NFL's more powerful owners and lobbied to make the NFL a whites-only league. In 1932, the final two African American, Joe Lillard, and Ray Kemp players were released. Though no formal rule was passed, it was agreed that no black players would be signed after 1933.
Following World War II, Professional Football was set for a major period of growth. The All-American Football Conference was set to debut, with integration as the Cleveland Browns signed Bill Willis and Marion Motley. The Browns were a replacement for the Cleveland Rams, who announced they would move to Los Angeles after winning the 1945 NFL Championship Game. Los Angeles controlled the LA Memorial Coliseum. As part of the lease with the city, the Rams had to guarantee that the league would integrate. This helped break the lock that owners like George Preston Marshall, who had held firm to a whites-only policy.
Kenny Washington continued to play football after graduating from UCLA, playing with the Los Angeles Bears of Pacific Coast Professional Football League. Washington was the top player in the league, earning All-League votes every year. By the time the season began, Washington was joined by Woody Strode as the NFL's first black two players in 14 years. Strode spent one season with the Rams before finishing his career in the CFL. Kenny Washington spent three years with the Rams before retiring in 1948 due to persistent knee injuries.
The NFL would slowly integrate over the next decade, though into the 1960s, it was known that many teams had quotas and would limit the amount of African-Americans on their roster. The last team to integrate was George Preston Marshall's Washington Redskins, who acquired Bobby Mitchell in 1962. The acquisition of Mitchell was largely due to a threat against Marshall that would have prevented his team from using DC Stadiums, the first new stadium in Washington in 50 years.