There Is No NFL Without Black Labor
“We don’t want four boys from Oakland telling us how to run our stadium,” Ray Schuessler defiantly demanded in his southern drawl.1 Instead of “quietly integrating” the Raiders-Jets exhibition game and allowing Black fans to sit in a roped-off section of the 42,000-seat Ladd Stadium in Mobile, Alabama, a stadium Black people were only allowed to attend twice a year, once for an HBCU game and another for the Black high school championship game, Schuessler, the manager of Ladd, said the stadium would go back to complete segregation because the “four boys from Oakland” protested the stadium’s Jim Crow policies.
But these weren’t boys, these were men. Black men. Black men who had grown tired of the injustices their people continued to face. And this was 1963–just months after the Birmingham movement. These Black men had become aware of the platform they had as professional football players to tackle racism. On their new role as activist athletes, tackle Proverb Jacobs observed, “This is part of a national movement and we as athletes can’t turn our backs, because people look up to us and must feel we are doing our part.” And flanker Bo Roberson acknowledged, “By not playing, we as Negroes and athletes contribute a small part to the whole struggle of the Negro’s search of equality and first class citizenship.”2 If their people could not watch them play in dignity, if their people could not use the restrooms at a game because the stadium did not have facilities for Black people, then they weren’t going to perform for white fans in Mobile. The four Black men from the Oakland Raiders, Bo Roberson, Fred Williamson, Clem Daniels, and Art Powell, later joined by their other two Black teammates Proverb Jacobs and Eugene White, stood in solidarity in their struggle against segregation and forced owners into the fight.
What professional owners understood then, and what the league fears now, is that Black labor drives professional football. When Black players have grievances about racism off the field, and Black players stand in solidarity, white owners have to address those issues. In 1961, when all the Black players from the Steelers and Colts threatened to boycott a game in Roanoke, Virginia, if the stadium didn’t integrate, NFL leadership put pressure on Roanoke to integrate the stadium. And in 1965, twenty-one Black players from the AFL, including Clem Daniels and Art Powell, boycotted an all-star game in New Orleans because of the racism they faced off of the field. Their actions forced white owners to move the all-star game to Houston.
In the summer of 1963, the Black Raiders’ resilience forced the hand of team officials; the white men who held the power to act. When the players first announced their plans to boycott the game, general manager Al Davis said, “These are my football players and they are also my friends. I have told them it is their decision. It is their life, and it is a much bigger thing than a football game.”3 Davis also told Black sportswriter, Sam Skinner, “I won’t force the fellows to play if they feel that they shouldn’t. I feel we could win more by playing. I believe they must fight for their rights. Good Lord, you know I would fight for the rights of all my players.”4 Although Davis recognized there was a problem and acknowledged support for his players, he did not truly understand their plight. At the moment, he was not willing to cancel the game. Instead the Raiders would play in a segregated stadium. That was their problem as Black men, not his. But, unlike what many owners have done today, Davis did not tell them to shut up and play. Davis recognized their right to protest, and it was the Black players’ sustained protest that pushed Davis firmly on the side of justice.
It took Davis a month to understand it was his problem too, because the Mobile officials refused to bend to his Black stars and because his players showed power over management. Once Davis recognized the players had power, he recognized their humanity. They were on the right side of justice. The boycott and the white southerners’ racist reactions forced Davis to understand that civil rights weren’t just a bad business problem for him; civil rights were a moral issue for all Americans and the Raiders had to act. They had to be part of the solution. If football could not force Ladd Stadium to completely integrate the stadium, there would be no game. There could be no more half-stepping for human rights. The Raiders took the side of their Black players and moved the game from Mobile to Oakland, taking a $40,000 hit. As Davis said, “the decision that was made was the only that could be made, not only from our players’ point of view, but from the whole morality of the thing. These are not only our players, but also our friends. We certainly had to stick with them.”
Though a small but growing minority in the AFL, Black players understood their worth to the league and used their power to force change. As Roberson reported, “Personally, I feel that much of the league’s success depends upon the dignity the players feel while performing. Players, if they go to other parts of the country and don’t have pride in feelings of first class citizenship, would make of the AFL a second-class league.”5 In an era where two leagues, the NFL and AFL, competed for talent, Roberson and his five other Black teammates understood that white owners had no league if they had no Black players. As a writer in the Oakland Tribune acknowledged, the six Black players were the “heart” of the team. Today, the Raiders have grown from six Black players to 76% of the team, above the NFL total percentage of nearly 70%. In other words, Black players are the heart of the league, and thus have the power.
We saw a hint at Black player power in the 2017 NFL season during week three when owners across the league decided to link arms with their teams during the playing of the national anthem. Leading up to that historical day, the owners had sensed their Black players had grown irritated by the nasty rhetoric from Donald Trump, including calling them “sons of bitches” for kneeling during the anthem, and the owners realized that if they did not act, they would have a major problem on their hands. Raiders owner Mark Davis, the son of Al, stood for the anthem that week, but also asserted, “I can no longer ask our team to not say something while they are in a Raider uniform. The only thing I can ask them to do is do it with class. Do it with pride. Not only do we have to tell people there is something wrong, we have to come up with answers. That’s the challenge in front of us as Americans and human beings.” But most owners chose a different tactic. They decided to pacify the players by joining them. The owners linked arms, but offered no real commitments to social justice. As Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told his team, “What we want to do is basically go out together. I want to go to the center of the field with everybody right before the national anthem, kneel with you at that time on the basis of unity.” Instead of making the conversation about police brutality, the original intent of the demonstrations during the national anthem, most owners white-washed the protest and made the protests about free speech and unity.
Fearing the power of Black labor, the owners got in front of the movement before the players could force their hands in a direction they did not want to go. By linking arms with the players, offering vague references to unity, and agreeing to meet the players to discuss police reform later in the season, the owners quieted most of the players.
Just last month at the owners’ meetings, fearing the power of Black labor and citing concern for white fans’ backlash (and reportedly at President Trump’s own urging), the owners passed a rule demanding that players on the field stand for the national anthem. Instead of seeing the humanity of the Black players and the communities they come from, as Al Davis was forced to do in 1963, the owners sought to control their labor. They would no longer allow Black football players to publicly protest police brutality.
By making the protests about the NFL’s dollars and not Black dignity, this new rule could backfire on the owners. The owners’ concern for white fans and the bottom line could shift the power back to Black players if the players understand their worth to the league. In order to get the owners of the league (who are 95% white) to bend towards justice, Black players have to continue to kneel during the anthem or find another influential way to control the narrative. They must force the conversation back to humanity, morality, and justice to make the owners understand that these protests are about the dignity of Black people. When Bo Roberson, Fred Williams, Art Powell, and Clem Daniels, made their decision to boycott, and stood in solidarity, Al Davis and the Raiders’ white leadership chose Black dignity over white dollars. By standing in solidarity, today’s players can force owners’ hands. There is no NFL without Black labor. The laborers must make the owners feel their Black Power.
- “Call to Mobile,” Oakland Tribune, August 20, 1963. ↩
- “Had to Stick Together,” Oakland Tribune, August 21, 1963. ↩
- “Mobile Seating Snafu,” Oakland Tribune, August 20, 1963. ↩
- “Prying Pye,” Los Angeles Sentinel, July 18, 1963. ↩
- For this quote and the previous one, see “Had to Stick Together,” Oakland Tribune, August 21, 1963. ↩
Comments on “There Is No NFL Without Black Labor”
THANK YOU for reminding us that our brave athletes have been on the front line for many, many years. Their struggle/our struggle is real. We must ALL…stand/kneel together. We have come far: cannot and will not be distracted.
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