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Keyshawn Johnson Wants the N.F.L. to Remember Its ‘Forgotten 4’


Keyshawn Johnson’s history lesson began with a matter. In 2020, Bob Glauber, a Newsday reporter, wanted to jot down a book about Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, whose signings to the Los Angeles Rams in 1946 broke an efficient ban on Black players 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 covered the team, about them. Johnson, like each players, is a Los Angeles native, though he played college football at U.S.C. long after Washington and Strode were standouts on the identical 1939 U.C.L.A. team as Jackie Robinson.

Yet Johnson said he had no idea of their importance as two of the 4 Black players to interrupt the N.F.L.’s color barrier. He didn’t even know that N.F.L. owners had struck a gentlemen’s agreement to not sign Black players that lasted from 1934 to 1946. The ban, Johnson learned, was only broken 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 identical 12 months.

Johnson’s lack of know-how was an indication of how little the N.F.L. had done to have fun the players. But that may change on Saturday, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame will give its Pioneer Award to the players’ families at its annual enshrinement ceremony.

It might not have happened without Johnson and Glauber, who lobbied the Hall for the consideration 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 released in 2021.

In a phone interview, Johnson and Glauber spoke about why the history of the so-called Forgotten 4 has gone largely unrecognized, the consequences of the N.F.L.’s racist past and the impact of giving the 4 pioneering players their due.

This interview has been calmly edited for clarity and condensed.

Keyshawn, you wrote that you simply didn’t find out about Washington or Stroud despite the fact that you played college football in the identical Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that they did once they attended U.C.L.A.

KEYSHAWN JOHNSON You understand, when you concentrate on it growing up, if you speak about African American communities or Black schools, there’s only 4 Black people talked about in history: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman. I mean, it’s pretty basic. Jackie Robinson in sports. Jesse Owens in sports and a little bit little bit of Arthur Ashe sprinkled in. There’s no real deep dive into the history. And once we get to school, it’s rinse and repeat all yet again. They’re going to show us all about white history.

So when Bob brought this to my attention, it piqued my interest since it was in my very own backyard, inside blocks of where I grew up. I had no knowledge about it since it just wasn’t talked about. There’s a monument on the Coliseum of Kenny Washington. But I don’t know if it’s up there on the Rose Bowl. I just don’t ever remember seeing it, and I’m going to a number of games there.

One of the crucial compelling sections of the book was the discussion of the implicit ban on signing Black players. You point to George Preston Marshall, the segregationist owner of the Washington franchise, as having led the ban, but you note that the opposite owners went together with him.

JOHNSON It never happens with only one guy. You’ll be able to’t call everybody a racist, but if you tolerate and also you ignore and also you turn your head the opposite way, you’re just as culpable. You’re just as much at fault because the ones who initiated it. That’s the best way it’s in skilled sports and in politics today. Same stuff, different years.

For many years, Major League Baseball has celebrated Jackie Robinson and confronted the ugly legacy of that league’s color barrier. Why has it taken the N.F.L. so long to do the identical?

JOHNSON On the time, baseball was the primary sport in America when Jackie Robinson was doing his deal. Whereas in football, 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 college football and baseball were greater. The league tends to get a number of things flawed after which attempt to correct them later, so it’s not out of the realm that it could have just completely flown over their heads.

BOB GLAUBER This just isn’t a very righteous story, banning Black players. And now, Black players make up roughly 70 percent of all the rosters of the N.F.L. The league didn’t cover itself in glory with this story.

That said, once we went to the league and type of searched for evaluation and opinion, starting with Roger Goodell, he owned it. He said: “That story is true, and we will’t change that and we now have to just accept it.”

The 4 players, they’d diverging careers: Some lasted longer. Some lasted, actually, quite briefly. Do any of their personal stories resonate louder with you, Keyshawn?

JOHNSON It’s just more about how they were treated by a few of their teammates, each good and bad. Those stories all the time persist with me. How people like George Preston Marshall vindictively treated people, yet was still in a position to own a team and need Black players to serve him. To me, it’s mind boggling. At the identical time, these players to still fight through it and never let it own them or take their spirits away for doing stuff that they need to do, which was play skilled sports. Motley got mainly blackballed, couldn’t play or coach within the National Football League, but he continued to fight through it. That perseverance, that mental toughness is what it’s all about to me.

Race stays a central tension within the N.F.L. with the Brian Flores suit that alleged he was discriminated against in hiring, racial bias within the concussions settlement and criticism that there are few team owners of color. So will these 4 players being honored on the Hall of Fame change the dynamic?

GLAUBER This just looks like an emotional conclusion to their story since the Hall of Fame is honoring them. But to me, it’s truly the start of more awareness of who they were, what they did and why they were so essential because they are usually not household names like Jackie Robinson. I don’t know in the event that they ever shall be. But they needs to be.

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