The Longue Duree Integration of College Football

The story of integration and the color line is old hat to most people. Lane Demas recognizes this in his new book Integrating the Gridiron. Demas bases the book on the premise the integration was messier and more diverse than we have been led to believe in the traditional sports narrative. By looking at the integration of college football, he seeks to add temporal and regional diversity to the traditional narrative of the color line in sports.

Demas’ first chapter outlines his desire to complicate the integration model. For him, the national narrative has focused on four big individuals – Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, and Muhammad Ali – when telling the history of the color line and integration in sports. While he does not discount the roles of these individuals, Demas believes that integration was more the process of grassroots events and process, and happened at different times throughout the country. To be sure, this argument is not entirely new but his application of this method to college football is.

Demas lays out his argument using four examples over of a forty-year period. He starts with familiar terrain and Jackie Robinson’s UCLA career. The West Coast was seemingly more accepting, according to Demas, thanks in large part to the Great Migration. Although schools such a USC integrated earlier, they later re-segregated because of concerns about inappropriate behavior between star black athletes and adoring white, female fans. After mincing stories about Pacific coast football, he selects the 1938-1941 UCLA teams as his exemplar. The UCLA team was the first to have more than four black players, several of whom were stars. Indeed, Demas notes that Robinson, although the most famous today, was not the best black player on the team (he suggests that Kenny Washington was the best).

In addition to these players, the UCLA was unique because of the way it local and student media embraced the team. They avoided racial language and accepted their stars for their talent and skin color. The sportswriters often defended their black players from racist attitudes, particularly those of opposing coaches and awards voters. For Demas, this serves as an “integration” event on the West Coast because the team fueled a change in attitude that led to greater acceptance and rights for black players. The ultimate indicator of this change was UCLA’s hiring of Washington as a freshman coach after his playing days.

The next major event for Demas is that national controversy surrounding Johnny Bright and Oklahoma A&M (now State). Racism was prevalent in Oklahoma as the state followed segregation. Sports, however, were a major interest of both Oklahoma Universities leading it to play a major role in pushing them towards more inclusiveness. A&M wanted more prestige and to join the Big 6, which included OU. They invested heavily in sports and sought to dominate the Missouri Valley in hopes of gaining entry to the better Big 6 conference.

This desire for acceptance contrasted from their racist views in a football game against Drake in 1951. Drake was integrated and has a star running back, Johnny Bright. Prior to the game in Stillwater, Bright received threats of violence. Once the game began, the team made good on those threats. A lineman unexpectedly punched him and broke his jaw after he handed the ball off. He sustained a few other hits and had to be removed from the game and taken to the hospital. With their star player injured Drake lost the game.

Oklahoma media ignored the incident following the game, while Iowa media was enraged. The national media played the fence. Drake appealed to A&M and the Missouri Valley for sanctions, but both refused. Drake and Bradley (another integrated college) withdrew from the conference in protest. The controversy hung over A&M, but they eventually gained admittance to the Big 6 (which became the Big 7). A condition of their entrance, however, was that all schools must field integrated teams. This forced OU and Missouri to also integrate. For Demas, the Bright incident played a role in these future decisions because schools like Kansas State and Nebraska were already integrated and worried about the safety of their players.

Demas treads on slippery and correlational ground with the Big 7 example as well as his next chapter on the 1956 Sugar Bowl. Like the Bright example, the Sugar Bowl itself did not force any major or immediate changes but rather served as a symbolic turning point. The Sugar Bowl invited Georgia Tech and Pittsburg to play, but Georgia newly elected governor tried to force a boycott because Pittsburg had a black player. The Governor faced a huge public relations disaster as result of his boycott stance. Southerners marched and protested in favor of playing the game not because they wanted integration but because they loved football. Their protests followed a “we play anyone” mentality that underscored their views of superiority. In the end, the game took place and Georgia Tech won. The win came on a key mistake by Bobby Grier, Pittsburg’s black player, which further proved “they” were better. Demas includes this story because it illustrates football as a force bigger than race and politicians. While this is true, it was mostly through ironic and subtle ways and it resulted in no major changes to the segregationist policies of the South.

The book’s final integration event is the “Black 14” of the University of Wyoming. The fourteen players were kicked off the team because they wanted to wear black armbands in a game against BYU protesting Mormon views that blacks could not enter the priesthood. At Wyoming the protest was seen as ungrateful and putting oneself over the team. Coach Eaton was a legend statewide and had numerous supporters. He saw the issue as one of team rules and coaching authority. He received support from many fellow hardnosed, disciplinary coaches, including Bear Bryant. Eventually the University president and Governor Stanley Hathaway (future Secretary of Interior) intervened and tried to negotiate with the coach and players. The negotiations failed. In some small way, the protest was a success as the Mormon Church eventually changed it stance in 1978.

For Demas, this event symbolizes a rise in activism and pressure by athletes for more rights and support for black athletes. The protest was supposed to be one of many spurred on by San Jose State professor Harry Edwards that called for support and solidarity among blacks. Indeed, at other schools similar protests led to the hiring of academic support staff, coaches, and even the recruitment of a black cheerleader.

Overall the book offers a series of interesting anecdotes and some neat facts, but it overall argument is fairly weak. Demas is correct to draw the attention of sports scholars to various integration events and show the temporal and regional diversity of the civil rights issues in sports. In practice, however, he does not fully explore and connect his examples with what he purports their outcomes are.

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