Keyshawn Johnson Wants the N.F.L. to Remember Its ‘Forgotten Four’

Keyshawn Johnson’s historical past lesson started with a query. In 2020, Bob Glauber, a Newsday reporter, needed 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 N.F.L.

Glauber figured he would ask Johnson, who had been an outspoken member of the Jets in the late ’90s when Glauber coated the crew, about them. Johnson, like each gamers, is a Los Angeles native, although he performed school soccer at U.S.C. lengthy after Washington and Strode had been standouts on the similar 1939 U.C.L.A. crew as Jackie Robinson.

Yet Johnson stated he had no concept of their significance as two of the 4 Black gamers to break the N.F.L.’s coloration barrier. He didn’t even know that N.F.L. house owners had struck a gents’s settlement to not signal Black gamers that lasted from 1934 to 1946. The ban, Johnson discovered, 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 N.F.L. had finished to have a good time the gamers. But that may 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 N.F.L. 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 N.F.L.’s racist previous and the affect of giving the 4 pioneering gamers their due.

This interview has been flippantly edited for readability and condensed.

Keyshawn, you wrote that you just didn’t find out about Washington or Strode regardless that you performed school soccer in the similar Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that they did after they attended U.C.L.A.

KEYSHAWN JOHNSON You know, when you consider it rising up, if you discuss African American communities or Black faculties, there’s solely 4 Black folks talked about in historical past: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman. I imply, it’s fairly primary. Jackie Robinson in sports activities. Jesse Owens in sports activities and just a little little bit of Arthur Ashe sprinkled in. There’s no actual deep dive into the historical past. And after we get to school, it’s rinse and repeat once more. They’re going to educate 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 information about it as a result of it simply wasn’t talked about. There is a monument at the Coliseum of Kenny Washington. But I don’t know if it’s up there at the Rose Bowl. I simply don’t ever keep in mind seeing it, and I’m going to loads 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 house owners went together with him.

JOHNSON It by no means occurs with only one man. You can’t name everyone a racist, however if you tolerate and also you ignore and also you flip your head the different method, you’re simply as culpable. 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 this time. Same stuff, completely different years.

For a long time, Major League Baseball has celebrated Jackie Robinson and confronted the ugly legacy of that league’s coloration barrier. Why has it taken the N.F.L. 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 greater. The league tends to get loads of issues mistaken after which attempt to right them later, so it’s not out of the realm that it might have simply fully flown over their heads.

BOB GLAUBER This is just not a very righteous story, banning Black gamers. And now, Black gamers make up roughly 70 % of the total rosters of the N.F.L. The league didn’t cowl itself in glory with this story.

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

The 4 gamers, that they had diverging careers: Some lasted longer. Some lasted, truly, 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 unhealthy. Those tales at all times stick to me. How folks like George Preston Marshall vindictively handled folks, but was nonetheless ready to personal a crew and need Black gamers to serve him. To me, it’s thoughts boggling. At the similar time, these gamers to nonetheless battle by it and never let it personal them or take their spirits away for doing stuff that they need to do, which was play skilled sports activities. Motley obtained mainly blackballed, couldn’t play or coach in the National Football League, however he continued to battle by it. That perseverance, that psychological toughness is what it’s all about to me.

Race stays a central stress in the N.F.L. with the Brian Flores go well with that alleged he was discriminated towards in hiring, racial bias in the concussions settlement and criticism that there are few crew house owners of coloration. 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’s really 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 don’t know in the event that they ever might be. But they need to be.

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