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Keyshawn Johnson Wants the NFL to Remember Its ‘Forgotten Four’

Keyshawn Johnson’s historical past lesson started with a query. In 2020, Bob Glauber, a Newsday reporter, wished to write a ebook about Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, whose signings to the Los Angeles Rams in 1946 broke an efficient ban on Black gamers in the NFL

Glauber figured he would ask Johnson, who had been an outspoken member of the Jets in the late 90s when Glauber lined the group, about them. Johnson, like each gamers, is a Los Angeles native, though he performed school soccer at USC lengthy after Washington and Strode had been standouts on the similar 1939 UCLA group as Jackie Robinson.

Yet Johnson stated he had no concept of ​​their significance as two of the 4 Black gamers to break the NFL’s colour barrier. He didn’t even know that NFL homeowners had struck a gents’s settlement not to signal Black gamers that lasted from 1934 to 1946. The ban, Johnson realized, was solely damaged after businessmen and journalists in Los Angeles pressured the Rams into signing Washington and Strode in 1946. Bill Willis and Marion Motley joined the Cleveland Browns the similar yr.

Johnson’s lack of information was an indication of how little the NFL had completed to have fun the gamers. But that can change on Saturday, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame will give its Pioneer Award to the gamers’ households at its annual enshrinement ceremony.

It wouldn’t have occurred with out Johnson and Glauber, who lobbied the Hall for the honor and wrote “The Forgotten First: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Bill Willis and the Breaking of the NFL Color Barrier,” which was launched in 2021 .

In a cellphone interview, Johnson and Glauber spoke about why the historical past of the so-called Forgotten Four has gone largely unrecognized, the results of the NFL’s racist previous and the influence of giving the 4 pioneering gamers their due.

This interview has been evenly edited for readability and condensed.

Keyshawn, you wrote that you just didn’t learn about Washington or Stroud although you performed school soccer in the similar Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that they did once they attended UCLA

KEYSHAWN JOHNSON You know, when you concentrate on it rising up, once you discuss African American communities or Black colleges, there’s solely 4 Black folks talked about in historical past: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman. I imply, it is fairly primary. Jackie Robinson in sports activities. Jesse Owens in sports activities and a bit little bit of Arthur Ashe sprinkled in. There’s no actual deep dive into the historical past. And after we get to school, it is rinse and repeat once more. They’re going to train us all about white historical past.

So when Bob introduced this to my consideration, it piqued my curiosity as a result of it was in my very own yard, inside blocks of the place I grew up. I had no data about it as a result of it simply wasn’t talked about. There is a monument at the Coliseum of Kenny Washington. But I do not know if it is up there at the Rose Bowl. I simply do not ever bear in mind seeing it, and I am going to quite a lot of video games there.

One of the most compelling sections of the ebook was the dialogue of the implicit ban on signing Black gamers. You level to George Preston Marshall, the segregationist proprietor of the Washington franchise, as having led the ban, however you word that the different homeowners went together with him.

JOHNSON It by no means occurs with only one man. You cannot name everyone a racist, however once you tolerate and also you ignore and also you flip your head the different method, you are simply as responsible. You’re simply as a lot at fault as the ones who initiated it. That’s the method it’s in skilled sports activities and in politics at present. Same stuff, totally different years.

For a long time, Major League Baseball has celebrated Jackie Robinson and confronted the ugly legacy of that league’s colour barrier. Why has it taken the NFL so lengthy to do the similar?

JOHNSON At the time, baseball was the primary sport in America when Jackie Robinson was doing his deal. Whereas in soccer, you had Fritz Pollard [Pollard was the first Black head coach in pro football and won a championship as a player for the Akron Pros in 1920.] after which a stoppage at a time when school soccer and baseball had been larger. The league tends to get quite a lot of issues mistaken after which strive to right them later, so it is not out of the realm that it might have simply fully flown over their heads.

BOB GLAUBER This shouldn’t be a very righteous story, banning Black gamers. And now, Black gamers make up roughly 70 p.c of the total rosters of the NFL. The league didn’t cowl itself in glory with this story.

That stated, after we went to the league and sort of seemed for evaluation and opinion, beginning with Roger Goodell, he owned it. He stated: “That story is true, and we won’t change that and we now have to settle for it.”

The 4 gamers, that they had diverging careers: Some lasted longer. Some lasted, really, fairly briefly. Do any of their private tales resonate louder with you, Keyshawn?

JOHNSON It’s simply extra about how they had been handled by a few of their teammates, each good and dangerous. Those tales at all times stick to me. How folks like George Preston Marshall vindictively handled folks, but was nonetheless in a position to personal a group and need Black gamers to serve him. To me, it is thoughts boggling. At the similar time, these gamers nonetheless battle by way of it and do not let it personal them or take their spirits away for doing stuff that they need to do, which was enjoying skilled sports activities. Motley bought mainly blackballed, could not play or coach in the National Football League, however he continued to battle by way of it. That perseverance, that psychological toughness is what it is all about to me.

Race stays a central rigidity in the NFL with the Brian Flores swimsuit that alleged he was discriminated in opposition to in hiring, racial bias in the concussions settlement and criticism that there are few group homeowners of colour. So will these 4 gamers being honored at the Hall of Fame change the dynamic?

GLAUBER This simply looks like an emotional conclusion to their story as a result of the Hall of Fame is honoring them. But to me, it is actually the starting of extra consciousness of who they had been, what they did and why they had been so vital as a result of they aren’t family names like Jackie Robinson. I do not know in the event that they ever will probably be. But they need to be.

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