Honoring the first black athletes in pro sports

February 14, 2011 11:00 am1 commentViews: 2108

Many know the names Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, and Arthur Ashe. They are synonymous with first black athletes to accomplish something in their sports. Without their struggles and breaking down color barriers, the sports world would not be what it is today. Looking across all major sports in America, you see players of all races. The NBA and NFL are both predominantly black, but years ago it was not like that.

Jackie Robinson was the first black player signed in major league baseball in 1946 by the Brooklyn Dodgers. He is celebrated for breaking the color barrier in pro sports, but the NFL was the first establishment to have black players and coaches. Fritz Pollard was the first black player in 1920, playing for the NFL’s Akron Pros, and soon became the head coach of the team while playing. In 1926, Pollard and all of his records were removed from the NFL, and league went back to excluding black players from joining teams.

The NBA today has more black players than ever before, but it all started 60 years ago in 1951. Earl Lloyd, Nat Clifton, and Chuck Cooper all joined the NBA in the same season. Their stints in the NBA were short, but their legacies made the NBA what it is today, an inclusive institution. Now there are black and white Americans, plus many players from around the world.

Of all the major sports, the NHL still has the least amount of black players. Willie O’Ree is noted as the “Jackie Robinson of hockey”, for being the first black player in the NHL. O’Ree, a native of Canada, made his first appearance on the ice with the Boston Bruins in 1958, and played for one season with the NHL before playing in many Canadian minor leagues. Once O’Ree left the NHL, there was not another black player until 1974.

In the past decade and a half, there have been multiple black quarterbacks to achieve success in the NFL like Vince Young, Donovan McNabb, and Duante Culpepper. You can even go back to the 80’s and 90’s with Randall Cunningham, Warren Moon, and the first and black QB to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory, Doug Williams. The quarterback position remains the one spot (besides kickers) where black players have not had many notable careers. But the first black quarterback to play in the NFL was Marlin Briscoe. Briscoe played for the AFL’s Denver Broncos in his rookie season, and also played some wide receiver. That year he threw for 14 touchdown passes, which remains a club record for rookies. After that season, Briscoe was signed by the Buffalo Bills, who made him a permanent wide receiver. Although his stint at QB was brief, Briscoe still showed teams around the league that having a black player at that position could garner success. Briscoe went on to become a talented player with the Dolphins, winning two Super Bowls with the team. However, Briscoe’s career was tainted post retirement, when he became addicted to hard drugs and went to prison a few times.

It is important to take time and honor the men who had courage to be the first to break color lines in their professions. Fans go to games everyday, and celebrate athletes of all ethnic backgrounds, but without these men, some of our favorite athletes may not be here today. The game would be uninteresting if different races were excluded from competition.

1 Comment

  • Jackie Robinson is one of my personal heros. Branch Rickey new what he was doing when he grabbed the second baseman from the negro leagues. He was extremely talented and had the fortitude to withstand an enormous amount of personal attacks. It’s a shame how long it took to integrate the leagues with people of color. Thanks for this piece.