When it comes to diversity and inclusion in the NFL, it is a touchy subject. Despite most of the players being African American, the coaching and front office ranks are predominantly white. Back in the day, the NFL conducted an unofficial league-wide blackout, not allowing any Black players into the league. That is until Kenny Washington came into the picture.
Washington was a standout running back but never played in the NFL because of the unwritten rule it had against Black players. However, one team would make league history with Kenny Washington, ending a 13- year blackout in the NFL.
The NFL’s 13-year blackout
In the 1920s, the NFL had some Black players playing in their league. It wasn’t many, however, as racism and segregation were strong during that time. The Black players who did play in the NFL were subjected to hate speech and sometimes violence. Starting in 1934, there were no Black players in the NFL. It was part of an unwritten rule amongst the league and its owners.
The refusal to allow Black players in the NFL was because owners and officials claimed that they weren’t as good as their white counterparts. Because of the Depression, the owners didn’t want Black players taking jobs from white players.
The league was successful at barring African American players from entry into the NFL. None were signed, none were drafted. However, that didn’t mean they weren’t playing football. Like many other Black athletes during that time, football players participated in lower-level leagues. Racism wasn’t going to stop them from playing the game they loved.
The NFL’s subtle attempts at segregating the league were going strong, until the Los Angeles Rams, Kenny Washington, and LA taxpayers had something to say about it.
Kenny Washington ends the NFL’s 13-Year blackout
Kenny Washington was a superstar talent at running back. He played at UCLA, where he was part of a legendary running back trifecta called the “Gold Dust Trio.” In 1939, Washington won the Douglas Fairbanks Trophy for college’s most outstanding player. Because of the unwritten blackout in the NFL, Washington went undrafted despite his sensational talent.
Washington worked as a police officer before joining the semi-pro team called the Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast Football League. The year he went undrafted, Chicago Bears owner George Halas considered drafting Washington, trying to convince league owners to lift the ban on black players. The other owners weren’t convinced.
When the Cleveland Rams moved to LA in 1946, they would play at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Coliseum was publicly owned, meaning that both Black and white taxpayer dollars were funding the stadium. Because of this, there was an expectation that the team would be integrated. Pressure from local Black newspapers and the stadium commission pressured the Rams into integrating their team.
On March 21, 1946, Kenny Washington signed a contract with the LA Rams, ending the NFL’s 13-year blackout. It was reportedly a “five-figure salary,” per The Undefeated. Washington didn’t play immediately for the Rams, as he was coming off of knee surgery. He did get his chance to play and was one of the top rushers in the league his second season.
Being black in the NFL wasn’t easy
Given the period Washington played in, being a Black NFL player wasn’t easy. Even before he made it to the NFL, he’d face racism from fans, coaches, players, sometimes even his own teammates. He would be the victim of dirty plays on the field. One of his UCLA teammates faced disownment for merely being on the same field as him.
“I can’t play next to a [expletive] because my folks would disown me,” said one of Washington’s college teammates, according to Gretchen Atwood’s book Lost Champions.
Washington’s teammates loved him. His energy and attitude were infectious, upping the morale of the team. He helped the team be more efficient pre-snap, introducing a new playcalling style different than the traditional huddle. His teammates would see the punishment he endured both as a football player and a Black man. “It’s hell being a Negro,” Scott said to one of his teammates after avoiding a kick to the head by an opponent.
Kenny Washington persevered through the 13-year ban, racist attacks, and numerous surgeries to become the first Black player to sign an NFL contract. He wasn’t the first Black person in the league, but his signing paved the way for a league that is now over 70 percent African American. Even though there were hard times, Washington credits football for the life he had.
“Football has been good to me. I’ve made a good living at it. I’ve bought a home for my wife and sons. I have made wonderful friends in the game,” said Washington during his retirement speech.