Top five: books on football and race

Race plays a central role in American history, so it’s no surprise that it is entwined with the history of football too. Race became an issue in 1933 when the NFL, which had never had many black players, began deliberately excluding them, and it was still an issue more than half a century later when Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win the Super Bowl.

In today’s NFL two-thirds of the players are black, but there are still debates about whether black QBs should move to another position in the pros. White QBs rarely face the same questions. Meanwhile, coaching positions, executive positions and, of course, ownership, remain overwhelmingly white.

As you might expect for a central theme of the league’s history, there have been a number of books written about race, so it wasn’t easy to pick just five. I could have included William C Rhoden’s oral history of black quarterbacks, Third and a Mile, and Howard Bryant’s The Heritage. Dr Robert Turner’s Not For Long has significant points to make about race at all levels of football but there wasn’t room for that either.

The five that I’ve chosen cover a broad cross-section of NFL (and AFL) history and focus on representation at different levels of the game. The list represents a good starting point for anyone interested in the subject.

1Lost Champions (2016) by Gretchen Atwood

Though Jackie Robinson is famous for breaking the colour barrier in baseball in 1947, it’s less well known that segregation in football was ended a year earlier, by four NFL players. Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, who signed for the LA Rams, and Bill Willis and Marion Motley, with the Browns, were the men who made history. Atwood’s book tells their story.
Buy the book: Amazon US

2Tackling Jim Crow (2003) by Alan H Levy

Professor Alan Levy, a history teacher at Slippery Rock University, Pennsylvania, digs more deeply into the era of segregated football, examining why the NFL came to exclude black players and how the owners went about doing it. The second half of his book examines desegregation through to the 1960s.
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3Mavericks, Money and Men (2016) by Charles K Ross

Talking of the 1960s, the rise of the AFL was a major factor in turning more black players into professionals. Competing with the NFL for talent, the AFL, found an untapped supply of talent in historically black colleges and universities. Charles K Ross previously tackled race in football in Outside the Lines and this book gives deserved credit to the AFL for advancing the progress of black players.
Full review
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4Advancing the Ball (2011) by N Jeremi Duru

Despite black players making up the majority of the NFL’s players, coaches are still far more likely to be white. In 2003 the NFL introduced the Rooney Rule, named after former Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, which required teams to interview minority candidates. Advancing the Ball tells the story of the creation of the rule and gives the background on why it had become necessary.
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5Playing While White (2017) by David J Leonard

This isn’t specifically about football but Leonard’s book is an excellent look at how black players are treated across American sport. He looks at how white athletes are often portrayed as intelligent, while blacks are stereotyped as ‘athletic’, backed up by some interesting analysis of the words used in NFL scouting reports. He also compares the excuses made for a player like Johnny Manziel, with the treatment of black athletes whose behaviour is nowhere near as bad. A thought-provoking read.
Buy the book: Amazon US | Amazon UK

Photo: Erik Drost

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