Keyshawn Johnson wants the NFL to remember its ‘forgotten four’

Keyshawn Johnson’s history lesson started with a question. In 2020, Bob Glauber, a Newsday reporter, wanted to write a book about Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, whose signings with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946 broke an effective ban on black players in the NFL.

Glauber thought he’d ask Johnson, who had been an outspoken member of the Jets in the late ’90s when Glauber was covering for the team, about them. Johnson, like both players, hails from Los Angeles, although he played college football at USC long after Washington and Strode stood out on the same 1939 UCLA team as Jackie Robinson.

Still, Johnson said he had no idea how important they were as two of four black players in breaking the NFL’s color barrier. He didn’t even know that the owners of the NFL had entered into a gentlemen’s agreement not to sign black players that lasted from 1934 to 1946. The ban, Johnson learned, was only broken after men Los Angeles businessmen and reporters pressured the Rams to sign Washington and Strode in 1946. Bill Willis and Marion Motley joined the Cleveland Browns the same year.

Johnson’s lack of awareness was a sign of how little the NFL had done to celebrate players. But that will change on Saturday, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame presents its Pioneer Award to families of players at its annual induction ceremony.

It wouldn’t have happened without Johnson and Glauber, who lobbied Hall for the honor and penned “The Forgotten First: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Bill Willis and the Breaking of the NFL Color Barrier,” which was released in 2021.

In a phone interview, Johnson and Glauber discussed why the history of the so-called Forgotten Four has gone largely unrecognized, the effects of the NFL’s racist past and the impact of giving the four pioneering players their due.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed.

Keyshawn, you wrote that you didn’t know Washington or Stroud even though you played college football at the same Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as them when they attended UCLA

KEYSHWN JOHNSON You know, when you think about it growing up, when you talk about African American communities or black schools, there are only four black people you talk 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 bit of Arthur Ashe sprinkled. There isn’t really a deep dive into the story. And when we get to college, it’s rinsed and repeated all over again. They will teach us everything about the history of white people.

So when Bob brought this to my attention, it piqued my curiosity because it was in my own backyard, a few blocks from where I grew up. I had no knowledge of it because it was simply not talked about. There is a monument at the Kenny Washington Coliseum. But I don’t know if it’s up there at the Rose Bowl. I don’t remember seeing it, and I go to a lot of games there.

One of the most compelling sections of the book was the discussion of the implied 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 other owners followed suit.

JOHNSON It never happens with just one guy. You can’t call everyone racist, but when you condone and ignore and turn your head the other way, you’re just as guilty. You are just as much at fault as those who initiated it. That’s how it is in professional sports and politics today. Same thing, different years.

For decades, Major League Baseball has celebrated Jackie Robinson and confronted the ugly legacy of that league’s color barrier. Why did it take the NFL so long to do the same?

JOHNSON At the time, baseball was the number one sport in America when Jackie Robinson was doing his thing. While 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.] then a stop at a time when college football and baseball were more important. The league tends to get a lot of things wrong and try to fix them later, so it’s not out of the question that it could have completely gone over their heads.

Bob Glauber It’s not a particularly fair story, banning black players. And now black players make up about 70% of the entire NFL roster. The league did not cover itself with glory with this story.

That said, when we went into the league and kind of looked for analysis and opinions, starting with Roger Goodell, he owned it. He said: “This story is true, and we cannot change that and we have to accept it.”

The four players have had divergent careers: Some have lasted longer. Some lasted, in fact, quite briefly. Do any of their personal stories resonate with you more strongly, Keyshawn?

JOHNSON It’s just more about how they were treated by some of their teammates, both good and bad. These stories always stick with me. How people like George Preston Marshall treated people vindictively, while being able to own a team and want black players to serve it. To me, that’s mind-boggling. At the same time, these players still have to fight hard and not get caught up in them or take their spirits away for doing things they want to do, which is playing professional sports. Motley was basically blackballed, couldn’t play or coach in the National Football League, but he kept fighting. That perseverance, that mental toughness, that’s what it’s all about for me.

Race remains a central tension in the NFL with Brian Flores’ lawsuit alleging he was discriminated against in hiring, racial bias in the settlement of concussions and criticism that there were few color team owners. So will these four Hall of Fame honorees change the dynamic?

GLAUBER It just seems like an emotional conclusion to their story because the Hall of Fame honors them. But for me, it’s really the start of a greater awareness of who they were, what they did and why they were so important because they’re not household names like Jackie Robinson. I don’t know if they ever will. But they should be.

nytimes sport

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