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Keyshawn Johnson wants the NFL to remember its 'forgotten 4'

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

Glauber thought he’d ask Johnson, who had been an outspoken member of the Jets in the late ’90s when Glauber was overlaying for the workforce, about them. Johnson, like each gamers, hails from Los Angeles, though he performed faculty soccer at USC lengthy after Washington and Strode stood out on the identical 1939 UCLA workforce as Jackie Robinson.

Still, Johnson mentioned he had no thought how necessary they have been as two of 4 black gamers in breaking the NFL’s coloration barrier. He didn’t even know that the homeowners of the NFL had entered right into a gents’s settlement not to signal black gamers that lasted from 1934 to 1946. The ban, Johnson discovered, was solely damaged after males Los Angeles businessmen and reporters pressured the Rams to signal Washington and Strode in 1946. Bill Willis and Marion Motley joined the Cleveland Browns the identical 12 months.

Johnson’s ignorance was an indication of how little the NFL had finished to have a good time gamers. But that can change on Saturday, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame presents its Pioneer Award to households of gamers at its annual induction ceremony.

It wouldn’t have occurred with out Johnson and Glauber, who lobbied Hall for the honor and penned “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 mentioned why the historical past of the so-called Forgotten Four has gone largely unrecognized, the results of the NFL’s racist previous and the affect of giving the 4 pioneering gamers their due.

This interview has been calmly edited for readability and condensed.

Keyshawn, you wrote that you just didn’t know Washington or Strode although you performed faculty soccer at the identical Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as them once they attended UCLA

KEYSHWN JOHNSON You know, when you consider it rising up, if you speak about African American communities or black colleges, there are solely 4 black folks you speak about in historical past: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman. I imply, it’s fairly fundamental. Jackie Robinson in sports activities. Jesse Owens in sports activities and a little bit of Arthur Ashe sprinkled. There isn’t actually a deep dive into the story. And once we get to faculty, it’s rinsed and repeated yet again. They will train us the whole lot about the historical past of white folks.

So when Bob introduced this to my consideration, it piqued my curiosity as a result of it was in my very own yard, just a few blocks from the place I grew up. I had no data of it as a result of it was merely not talked about. There is a monument at the Kenny Washington Coliseum. But I don’t know if it’s up there at the Rose Bowl. I don’t remember seeing it, and I am going to a number of video games there.

One of the most compelling sections of the ebook was the dialogue of the implied 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 observe that the different homeowners adopted go well with.

JOHNSON It by no means occurs with only one man. You can’t name everybody racist, however if you condone and ignore and switch your head the different means, you’re simply as responsible. You are simply as a lot at fault as those that initiated it. That’s how it’s in skilled sports activities and politics at present. Same factor, 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 did it take the NFL so lengthy to do the identical?

JOHNSON At the time, baseball was the primary sport in America when Jackie Robinson was doing his factor. While 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.] then a cease at a time when faculty soccer and baseball have been extra necessary. The league tends to get a number of issues fallacious and take a look at to repair them later, so it’s not out of the query that it might have utterly flown over their heads.

Bob Glauber It’s not a very truthful story, banning black gamers. And now black gamers make up about 70% of the whole NFL roster. The league didn’t cowl itself with glory with this story.

That mentioned, once we went into the league and sort of seemed for evaluation and opinions, beginning with Roger Goodell, he owned it. He mentioned: “This story is true, and we cannot change that and we have to accept it.”

The 4 gamers have had divergent careers: Some have lasted longer. Some lasted, in reality, fairly briefly. Do any of their private tales resonate with you extra strongly, Keyshawn?

JOHNSON It’s simply extra about how they have been handled by a few of their teammates, each good and unhealthy. These tales at all times keep on with me. How folks like George Preston Marshall handled folks vindictively, whereas nonetheless having the ability to personal a workforce and need black gamers to serve it. To me, that’s mind-boggling. At the identical time, these gamers nonetheless have to struggle laborious and never get caught up in them or take their spirits away for doing issues they need to do, which is enjoying skilled sports activities. Motley was mainly blackballed, couldn’t play or coach in the National Football League, however he stored combating. That perseverance, that psychological toughness, that’s what it’s all about for me.

Race stays a central rigidity in the NFL with Brian Flores’ lawsuit alleging he was discriminated towards in hiring, racial bias in the settlement of concussions and criticism that there have been few coloration workforce homeowners. So will these 4 Hall of Fame honorees change the dynamic?

GLAUBER It simply looks as if an emotional conclusion to their story as a result of the Hall of Fame honors them. But for me, it’s actually the begin of a larger consciousness of who they have been, what they did and why they have been so necessary as a result of they’re not family names like Jackie Robinson. I don’t know in the event that they ever will. But they need to be.

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