31 Jan 2005
By Michael David Smith
On the day before the Super Bowl, 39 men will get together in a closed room and select between three and six new members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, writing a new chapter of football history.
The Hall of Fame selections always have some controversy. This year, former Giants linebacker Harry Carson has said that because he's so upset that he hasn't been chosen already, he no longer wants to be selected. We're also hearing renewed arguments about the merits of Redskins wide receiver Art Monk. A few years ago, the big argument was whether the off-field troubles of Lawrence Taylor should negate his on-field greatness.
But the greatest scandal involving the Pro Football Hall of Fame, one that has received scant media coverage, could get a surprise happy ending this weekend. Fritz Pollard, one of the game's great pioneers who was excluded from the NFL because of the color of his skin, is on the ballot this year. If 31 of the 39 voters can be persuaded of his merit, Pollard will finally -- 19 years after his death at age 92 -- have a bust in Canton.
Nearly everyone -- from fans to members of the media to athletes themselves -- agrees that the National Football League is America's best-run sports organization. Yet in one crucial but generally overlooked respect, Major League Baseball is far superior to the NFL: Baseball has openly atoned for its segregated past and enshrined players from the Negro Leagues into its Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The NFL, which shared baseball's racism in the 1930s and 1940s, continues to ignore the great black players (and, in Pollard's case, a coach and team owner as well) it once excluded.
When John Elway and Barry Sanders were enshrined in Canton on August 8, they thanked their coaches and their teammates and their parents, just like the players enshrined the year before, and the players the year before that. But not once in more than 40 years of the Hall's existence has someone taken a few seconds out of his speech to do what Ted Williams did when he was enshrined in Cooperstown in 1966. On that summer day Williams cited the "great Negro players who are not here only because they weren't given the chance." By 1971 the Hall of Fame took Williams' advice and began inducting Negro Leagues players. The Pro Football Hall of Fame still hasn't followed suit.
Players from football's version of the Negro Leagues deserve busts in Canton. And the first among them ought to be Pollard, who had a promising career in professional football cut short when National Football League owners decided in 1934 to ban African-Americans. Pollard began playing in the NFL in its first season, 1920, and later became the league's first black head coach. Several African-Americans played in the league with him in the 1920s, but they were all gone by 1934, when Joe Lillard (who also deserves a spot in the Hall) was told he was no longer welcome on the Chicago Cardinals.
Although few people realize it today, African-Americans continued to play football in the 1930s after the NFL banned them. Major colleges in every part of the country except the South fielded black players. And when those black players finished college, many of them went to play in smaller leagues that hadn't adopted the NFL's segregationist policy. These players are entitled to a shot at the hall of fame. Representatives of Pollard's alma mater, Brown University, last year revived a movement to get him into the Hall of Fame, and although that movement was seen as a long shot, the Hall of Fame announced that Pollard would be one of the 15 finalists in this year's voting.
But Pollard is no sure thing. First of all, many members of the Hall of Fame's selection committee simply don't know anything about him. Joe Horrigan, vice president of communications for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, gave a different explanation to the Boston Globe in February of 2004, saying Pollard still receives occasional consideration, but that, "The problem with players, coaches, and administrators of that era is that it's difficult to document statistically their performances, and unfortunately the teams Pollard played for were not that successful."
The argument that Pollard and other African-American greats from pro football's early days lack the statistics to be in the Hall of Fame is preposterous. Unlike baseball, football is not a sport built on a foundation of numbers. (In a way, that's part of what makes the website you are reading so unique.) If statistics were a requirement for selection to the Hall of Fame, not a single offensive lineman would be in Canton. The lack of statistics hasn't kept white contemporaries of Pollard like Red Grange and George Halas from the Hall. Why would the Hall admit some players who have no statistics to prove their worth while denying other players entry for the same reason? As for the success of his teams, if Pollard gets into the Hall of Fame he'll join a great number of players who got there despite playing for more losing teams than winners. Dan Marino is the one player among this year's finalists who is assured of a unanimous vote, even though he still carries the label of being the quarterback who couldn't win the Super Bowl.
If Pollard does manage to make it this year, perhaps it won't be the end of the struggle on his behalf but the beginning of a case to be made for several top black players of the 1930s. So what would it take to get Lillard and other great African-American players into the Hall of Fame? The best way would be for the Hall of Fame to form a special committee to examine which black players from the old days deserve a spot. That seems unlikely given the Hall's general apathy, so it's probably up to the Hall of Fame's Seniors Committee, a group of sportswriters that meets each year to propose that one person who has been out of the game for 25 years or more and isn't in the Hall of Fame be inducted. The Seniors Committee made the right move this year in choosing Pollard as its nominee, and if that committee continues to nominate some of the previously ignored black players, the full 39-member selection committee would then vote on him on the day before the Super Bowl. All it would take is one maverick journalist who can go before his peers and convincingly argue the case for Lillard, Duke Slater, Rube Marshall, or any of the other great black players of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.
The case for Pollard, to be made in that secure room this weekend, would seem especially easy to make. In his first season, he led the undefeated (8-0-3) Akron Pros in rushing, receiving, scoring, and punt returns. Bruce Copeland of the Rock Island Argus selected what is, as far as I can tell, the very first football all-pro team, and Pollard was on it. The next year Pollard was installed as the Pros' head coach and the team won its first seven games (all shutouts), before injuries to Pollard and some of the team's other top players caused the Pros to trail off, ending the season at 8-3-1. Pollard led that team in rushing, scoring, and punt returns while also serving as the head coach. He also had the same pioneering spirit as many of the men who formed professional football. In 1935, just after African-Americans were banned from the NFL, Pollard founded the New York Brown Bombers, an all-black team that had Lillard on its roster. After three years the Brown Bombers collapsed when Pollard couldn't find financial backing, but by all accounts Pollard exhibited many of the same positive traits as the game's founding fathers, men like George Halas of the Bears and Art Rooney of the Steelers. Halas and Rooney were selected to the Hall of Fame decades ago. (For a complete rundown of his career, the Web site fritzpollard.com is a great resource.)
The NFL finally broke its racist ban on March 21, 1946, when halfback Kenny Washington signed with the Los Angeles Rams. Rams owner Dan Reeves had just moved the team from Cleveland to Los Angeles, and some civic leaders argued that under the separate-but-equal laws that then ruled the land, if the Rams wanted to field an all-white team at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the city would have to build another 100,000-seat stadium for an all-black team. Realizing that wasn't going to happen, and knowing he'd be unlikely to persuade the populace that black athletes who had just returned from World War II were unworthy of playing pro football, Reeves agreed to sign Washington. Then, realizing Washington would need a roommate, Reeves signed end Woody Strode. (Washington and Strode had played together with Jackie Robinson on the UCLA football team.)
Today, most of the NFL's top players are black, including 40 of the 44 starters in last year's Pro Bowl. So how could anyone possibly believe that none of the top players in the first half-century of professional football were black? And yet that's exactly what the Pro Football Hall of Fame expects its visitors to think. The Hall of Fame includes 38 white players, six white coaches, six white owners and three white league officials who started in the league before 1946. How can it not even have one African-American from that time period?
This isn't a story of political correctness or revisionist history. It's simply about seeing all the best football players in the Hall of Fame, not only the players who had the right skin color at the right time. Cooperstown corrected its mistake in 1971. When will Canton?
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