In 1919, as more than 25 race riots erupted in major U.S. cities, Fritz Pollard, a former Brown University All-American running back, joined the Akron Pros, a pro football team that would later become a charter member of the NFL. Pollard was at the time just the sixth black pro-football player in an era when lynchings of black men by white mobs were almost a daily occurrence.
“It was evident in my first year at Akron back in 1919 that they didn’t want blacks in there getting that money,” Pollard said. “And here I was, playing and coaching and pulling down the highest salary in pro football.
“My father had taught me that I was too big to be humiliated by prejudiced whites. If I figured a hotel or restaurant didn’t want me, I stayed away. I didn’t go sniffing around hoping they’d accept me. I was never interested in socializing with whites. I was there to play football and make my money.”
In Akron, Pollard became the first black head coach and quarterback in the NFL and the most vocal advocate for black players in the formative years of the league. He is considered by many observers of the NFL as the first conscience of the game.
When owners colluded to shut black players out of the league from 1934 to 1946, Pollard used the pages of a newspaper that he started after his retirement to press for change. He also founded an all-black football team in Harlem that was unsuccessful in luring local NFL teams to play exhibition games.
This year, the NFL is celebrating its 100th season and a heritage that began when 11 teams met on Aug. 20, 1920, in Canton, Ohio, to form the American Professional Football Association. Two of the oldest teams, the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears, who opened this year’s season on Thursday night, were all-white when they first met.
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But on Thursday night at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, as a sign of how far things have come since Pollard’s day, 70 percent of the players on the active rosters of the Bears and Packers were black, a statistic that mirrors the dominant presence of blacks on the field in a league that had $8.78 billion in revenue in 2018. Nonetheless, in the opening week of the NFL season, there were four black head coaches, one black general manager and nine black starting quarterbacks.
Pollard would probably recognize all of this as progress for both black people and the game, but chances are he would call on the NFL to do more to increase the number of black head coaches, front office executives and team owners. His imprint on this issue is felt daily through the work of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization that advocates for diversity and equality in coaching, scouting and the front office in the NFL. As a football player, entertainment promoter and social activist, Pollard might have applauded the league’s partnership with Jay-Z and his entertainment company to use musical events to build community relations.
The faces inside the helmets may look different than they did a century ago, but the team owners are still mostly all white men who together wield an often uncompromising power in the game. As a player-coach and later a fierce private advocate for black advancement in the game, Pollard never backed down to this authority.
In 1920, the league’s inaugural season, when there was no playoff and the champion was determined by its win-loss record, Pollard’s Pros went 8-0-3 and took the title. George Halas’ Bears, then called the Staleys, also claimed the title with a 10-1-2 record. To settle who was the real champion, Halas reached out to Pollard to arrange a game between the Staleys and the Pros in Chicago.
More than 12,000 people came out to Wrigley to see a much-hyped contest that ended in a scoreless tie. Halas and Pollard had both grown up in Chicago and knew each other from high school. Ultimately, the Pros prevailed on the strength of their won-loss percentage and the quality of their opponents, but the controversy sharpened a simmering feud between Halas and Pollard over competing narratives of the formative years of the NFL.
Pollard felt that he never received the credit or recognition for his contributions to the early years of the NFL. He spent years defending his accomplishments, believing that the racism of the early years of the league was played down to lessen the impact of his role and to raise the legend of men like Halas, whom he believed was a racist.
“Halas was the greatest foe of Black football players,” Pollard told a reporter in 1971, adding that Halas helped start “the ball rolling that eventually led to the barring of blacks from professional football in 1933.”
While Halas dismissed the notion that he was racist, he wouldn’t draft a black player until 1949 when he took George Taliaferro out of Indiana, the first African American to be drafted by an NFL team. And of the 12-year absence of blacks from the league from 1934 to 1946, Halas would say, “Probably the game didn’t have the appeal to black players at the time.”
Halas is a name rightfully synonymous with the founding of the NFL. As a player, coach and team owner, he was as important as any single figure in helping to put the league on a course to become the sprawling multibillion-dollar juggernaut that it is today. It was Halas, who in 1922, suggested to the other owners that the name of the league be changed from the American Professional Football Association to the National Football League. Yet the social revolution that Pollard led in the professional game is largely responsible for the sport’s endurance as the country’s most popular spectator sport. It’s difficult to imagine the game without black players.
Pollard died in 1986 at 92, outliving his rival, George Halas, by three years. Both men are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The Bears recently unveiled statues of Halas and one of his great draft choices, Walter Payton, the Hall of Fame running back, who could not have played in the league were it not for the sacrifices of men like Pollard.