In 1933, NFL owners secretly banned Black players from the league. Thirteen years later, four Black men—Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Bill Willis, and Marion Motley—reintegrated pro football. The Forgotten Four broke the race barrier in professional football one year before Jackie Robinson’s historic, and widely recognized, debut in Major League Baseball.
In Blackballed, a new four-part audio documentary on the Ringer NFL Show feed, we’re telling their story and exploring how it can help us understand the league’s complicated relationship with race in the present day. Below is an excerpt of Episode 1, “The Gentlemen’s Agreement.” Check back on Thursday for Episode 2 and next week for the rest of the series.
The story of segregation in football is kind of a strange one.
Football had existed in America since the mid-1800s, basically since the end of the Civil War. It was played mostly at the collegiate level—and by 1890, there were a handful of Black players excelling at schools like Amherst, Harvard, and Michigan. This was during the Jim Crow era, but segregation wasn’t explicitly allowed.
Around the turn of the century, professional football came into being in America. And unlike so many institutions, it did not embrace segregation at first. In fact, in 1902, the first Black man suited up in a pro football game. His name was Charles Follis. They called him the Black Cyclone. I know.
Anyway, for four years, Follis played alongside white players for the Shelby Blues of the Ohio League. To put it in perspective, Follis was a two-sport athlete. And when it came to baseball, he had to play in the Negro Leagues.
Essentially, when it came to segregation, football was behind the times. And that stayed true through the inception of the NFL, which was formed under another name in 1920. And even though it was legal to exclude Black players in America, the league didn’t.
Why do you think that is? Why did baseball have a white league and a Black league, and America started to really segregate, but football didn’t?
Now, this is going to sound a little bit terrifying in hindsight, but during this time period, there was a pretty substantial group of people who thought football was going to save the soul of the nation.
I know, no big deal. So, long story short, at the turn of the 20th century—after the West was “won”—a bunch of white folks felt like the spirit that made America America was at risk of fading, of getting changed by waves of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. These second- and third-generation Americans thought their country was getting weak. And so, when football showed up, a lot of folks saw it as a social elixir.
But that’s only half of it. Football—as we all know—is brutal. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen photos of football players from the 19th century, but let’s just say there’s not a lot of padding. These guys were playing “mountain ram” without helmets. And people died. A lot. Fielding a team quickly became an issue of supply and demand. And when that happens, you can’t really afford to be choosy about what color the product is.
More than 50 Black athletes played on white college football teams from 1889 through 1920. And it bears saying that around this same time, historically Black colleges and universities like Howard and Tuskegee are starting to field their own teams. So you have an environment where Black people are pretty much playing at every level.
During the NFL’s first two years, at least four Black players lined up for squads. Of note, that number includes Fritz Pollard, a Hall of Fame running back and the NFL’s first Black head coach.
So the early NFL had Black players, but we should be clear—it wasn’t like today. Black players made up a tiny percentage of the league. In 1922, there were only five Black players in the NFL, out of hundreds.
These aren’t exactly giant numbers, but they’re significant given what’s going on in other major sports. The last Black major leaguer suited up in 1884. The last Black jockey to win a Triple Crown race was in 1902.
And during this time, football was becoming something of a national phenomenon. Though the NFL wasn’t as widely popular as college football, it was a paying gig for football players. It was a job. And jobs were plentiful throughout the decade … until they suddenly weren’t.
The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression left a lot of bare pockets. Unemployment was rampant. For reference, unemployment rates ranged from 14 percent to almost 25 percent across America in the 1930s. And that led to some tension around paying Black people to play football.
In the late ’20s and early ’30s, there were never more than two Black NFL players at a time. And then, in 1934, for the first time in the 14-year history of the NFL, there were no Black players at all.
And this isn’t really seen as an accident at the time. From the moment it happened, there were rumors in the media and in locker rooms that the change was by design.
Some people called it a “gentlemen’s agreement.” I don’t use that term in my everyday life, but I guess it’s supposed to mean an unofficial, wink-wink deal. But a “gentlemen’s agreement”? Did they have a meeting? Did they all go golfing and just whisper around the tees?
I don’t know about you, but when I imagine this—and to be clear, this is just in my head—I see them all hanging out in a dark speakeasy in Chicago, cigar smoke everywhere, clinking their bourbons and laughing about their new plan.
The gentlemen’s agreement is technically only a rumor, but it was one that was easy to believe.
What is clear is that all of a sudden, without any public declaration of segregation, the NFL suddenly employed no Black players: players who, at their physical peaks, no longer had an opportunity to play.
And whatever did happen ... happened in the dark.
This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity. To hear the entire episode, click here, and subscribe to The Ringer NFL Show to listen to additional episodes.
Host: Chelsea Stark-Jones
Co-Reporter: Lex Pryor
Producers: Isaiah Blakely, Mike Wargon, Justin Sayles, and Vikram Patel
Sound Design and Original Theme Song: Devon Renaldo
Mixing and Mastering: Scott Somerville