Canton, Ohio) As the National Football League gets ready for its 100th season this year, it
is important to look at at more than just the sports phenomenon it has become. Author and
Ohio native David Rohr believes that sport—particularly the NFL—has had an important
role in racial integration and understanding throughout the country.
Rohr also points out that one could also trace the beginning of this process all the way back
to the league’s very first season. His book, The United States of Ohio, discusses the seldomnoted
fact is that the first championship team, the 1920 Akron Pros, had two black players,
Paul Robeson and Fritz Pollard. Robeson would go on to become an attorney, an activist,
and a well-known musical artist and actor. And Pollard had already broken a number of
color barriers at the college level with Brown University. But one of the most significant
breakthroughs came when Pollard was appointed the Akron Pros’ head coach for the 1921
Founded in Canton, Ohio as the American Professional Football Association, the league renamed
itself the National Football League in 1922. It has since grown into a sports, cultural
and marketing phenomenon without peer. Rohr says that the early league welcomed not
only black players but featured a number of leading Native American stars as well. These
include Jim Thorpe, one of the most famous athletes of the time. An entire team, the
Oorang Indians (located near Marion, Ohio) was comprised wholly of Native American
players. Marion may also be the smallest community to have had an NFL team.
There were setbacks for minority players however, says Rohr. In the early 1930s, some in
the league led by the Washington Redskins owner developed an eye toward expanding into
segregated southern states. They formed a “gentlemen’s agreement” which essentially shut
out black players. Although owners later denied that there had ever been a ban, the fact of
the matter is that the NFL was an “all white” league for about 14 years.
Ohioans then played a leading role in re-integrating the NFL, right about the time native
Ohioan Branch Rickey’s decision to bring Jackie Robinson into baseball’s Major Leagues
began to revolutionize that sport. Paul Brown, who was set to coach the brand new Cleveland
Browns, admired the play of Bill Willis and Marion Motley during his coaching at Ohio
State University and wartime work at the Lake Erie Naval station. He quickly recruited
them for the Browns’ 1946 debut season. Simultaneously, the Cleveland Rams who were
departing for Los Angeles signed two other African American players—Kenny Washington
and Woody Strode. This effectively broke the so-called “gentleman’s agreement” says Rohr.
Pollard’s history as Akron-coach in the early 1920s required a bit of verbal gymnastics on
the part of commentators when Art Shell was named as Los Angeles Raiders coach in 1989.
At first Shell was hailed as the “first” African-American coach, a description that had be
changed to “first in the modern era” once Pollard’s story came to light again.
“Sports play a key role in changing popular culture,” adds Rohr. “They provide entertainment
but just as importantly give young people heroes,…people to admire. During the
1950s more and more kids were opening their baseball and football card packs to pictures
and statistics of minority players. White kids were attempting to imitate or play like baseball’s
Willie Mays or football running back Jim Brown. That had to be a good thing for
Along with other important sports history, The United States of Ohio takes a sweeping look
at Ohio’s significance to the rest of the country. Subjects include technology, industrialization,
music, entertainment, United States presidents and the state’s political importance. It
is available from its publisher, Ohio State University Press, virtually every online retailer
and select Barnes & Noble locations. Rohr, who lives, works and teaches in Poughkeepsie,
New York, grew up in Toledo, Ohio. He spent much of his early career working in various
parts of Ohio including Columbus, Akron and Cleveland. More information is available at
ohiostatepress.org or unitedstatesofohio.com.