Keyshawn Johnson’s historical past lesson started with a query. In 2020, Bob Glauber, a Newsday reporter, wished to write down a guide about Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, whose signings to the Los Angeles Rams in 1946 broke an efficient ban on Black gamers within the N.F.L.
Glauber figured he would ask Johnson, who had been an outspoken member of the Jets within the late 90s when Glauber lined the group, about them. Johnson, like each gamers, is a Los Angeles native, although he performed faculty soccer at U.S.C. lengthy after Washington and Strode have been standouts on the identical 1939 U.C.L.A. group as Jackie Robinson.
But Johnson mentioned he had no concept of their significance as two of the 4 Black gamers to interrupt the N.F.L.’s shade barrier. He didn’t even know that N.F.L. homeowners had struck a gents’s settlement to not signal Black gamers that lasted from 1934 to 1946. The ban, Johnson realized, was solely damaged after businessmen and journalists in Los Angeles pressured the Rams into signing Washington and Strode in 1946. Invoice Willis and Marion Motley joined the Cleveland Browns the identical 12 months.
Johnson’s lack of information was an indication of how little the N.F.L. had performed to have a good time the gamers. However that can change on Saturday, when the Professional Soccer Corridor of Fame will give its Pioneer Award to the gamers’ households at its annual enshrinement ceremony.
It might not have occurred with out Johnson and Glauber, who lobbied the Corridor for the distinction and wrote “The Forgotten First: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Invoice Willis and the Breaking of the N.F.L. Shade Barrier,” which was launched in 2021.
In a telephone interview, Johnson and Glauber spoke about why the historical past of the so-called Forgotten 4 has gone largely unrecognized, the results of the N.F.L.’s racist previous and the influence of giving the 4 pioneering gamers their due.
This interview has been evenly edited for readability and condensed.
Keyshawn, you wrote that you simply didn’t learn about Washington or Stroud although you performed faculty soccer in the identical Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that they did once they attended U.C.L.A.
KEYSHAWN JOHNSON You understand, when you consider it rising up, while you speak about African American communities or Black colleges, 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 fundamental. Jackie Robinson in sports activities. Jesse Owens in sports activities and somewhat little bit of Arthur Ashe sprinkled in. There’s no actual deep dive into the historical past. And after we get to varsity, it’s rinse and repeat over again. They’re going to show 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 data about it as a result of it simply wasn’t talked about. There’s a monument on the Coliseum of Kenny Washington. However I don’t know if it’s up there on the Rose Bowl. I simply don’t ever bear in mind seeing it, and I’m going to numerous video games there.
One of the compelling sections of the guide 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 be aware that the opposite homeowners went together with him.
JOHNSON It by no means occurs with only one man. You may’t name all people a racist, however while you tolerate and also you ignore and also you flip your head the opposite means, you’re simply as culpable. You’re simply as a lot at fault as those who initiated it. That’s the best way it’s in skilled sports activities and in politics right this moment. Identical stuff, totally different years.
For many years, Main League Baseball has celebrated Jackie Robinson and confronted the ugly legacy of that league’s shade barrier. Why has it taken the N.F.L. so lengthy to do the identical?
JOHNSON On 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 faculty soccer and baseball have been larger. The league tends to get numerous issues incorrect after which attempt to right them later, so it’s not out of the realm that it may have simply fully flown over their heads.
BOB GLAUBER This isn’t a very righteous story, banning Black gamers. And now, Black gamers make up roughly 70 % of the whole rosters of the N.F.L. The league didn’t cowl itself in glory with this story.
That mentioned, after we went to the league and form of regarded for evaluation and opinion, beginning with Roger Goodell, he owned it. He mentioned: “That story is true, and we are able to’t change that and we’ve to simply 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 have been handled by a few of their teammates, each good and unhealthy. These tales all the time follow me. How folks like George Preston Marshall vindictively handled folks, but was nonetheless capable of personal a group and wish Black gamers to serve him. To me, it’s thoughts boggling. On the identical time, these gamers to nonetheless battle by way of it and never let it personal them or take their spirits away for doing stuff that they wish to do, which was play skilled sports activities. Motley obtained principally blackballed, couldn’t play or coach within the Nationwide Soccer League, however he continued to battle by way of it. That perseverance, that psychological toughness is what it’s all about to me.
Race stays a central rigidity within the N.F.L. with the Brian Flores swimsuit that alleged he was discriminated towards in hiring, racial bias within the concussions settlement and criticism that there are few group homeowners of shade. So will these 4 gamers being honored on the Corridor of Fame change the dynamic?
GLAUBER This simply looks as if an emotional conclusion to their story as a result of the Corridor of Fame is honoring them. However to me, it’s really the start of extra consciousness of who they have been, what they did and why they have been so essential as a result of they don’t seem to be family names like Jackie Robinson. I don’t know in the event that they ever will likely be. However they need to be.