- Integrating the Gridiron: Black Civil Rights and American College Football
Integrating the Gridiron is a compact study of four pivotal moments in American college sports when black athletes challenged racial discrimination on the football field. Author Lane Demas specifically concentrates on college as opposed to professional sports because he contends that too much attention has been devoted to a few famous professional athletes like Jackie Robinson and too little to the many anonymous college players who broke numerous color lines around the country. The prolonged struggle to fully integrate college athletics, Demas argues, was a central component of the larger Civil Rights movement. Hence the book attempts “to unite a history of integration in college football with the broader, national civil rights narrative” and to demonstrate “how reaction to the game altered the discourse of civil rights in America” (p. 4). Demas is mostly successful in achieving his first goal but much less so with the second.
The first of the four detailed case studies focuses on the 1939 University of California at Los Angeles football team. The presence of five black athletes including Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson made the 1939 Bruins the most integrated squad in the nation. Near the end of the season, it appeared that the Bruins might serve as the home team in the Rose Bowl classic against the top-ranked and all-white University of Tennessee Volunteers. This development would have forced Tennessee to choose between preserving its tradition of refusing to play against African Americans or abandoning this policy in order to seek additional athletic glory. A 0-0 tie against the University of Southern California knocked the Bruins out of the Rose Bowl, however, and a major opportunity to confront Southern colleges’ Jim Crow policies slipped away.
Demas’ second case study examines the intentional injury of Drake University halfback Johnny Bright in 1951 and injects real drama into the book. At the start of an away game against Oklahoma A&M, still a segregated institution, an Aggie player deliberately struck Bright in the face on three consecutive plays without being detected by the referees. Bright had been leading the nation in rushing yardage, but the resulting broken jaw effectively ended his college career. Photographs of the vicious attack appeared in Life magazine and, according to Demas, forced “a public examination of race in the Midwest that no civil rights rally, court case, or speech had ever managed” (p. 71).
The 1956 Sugar Bowl controversy over the contest between an integrated University of Pittsburgh team and a segregated Georgia Tech squad is the subject of Demas’ third case study. Georgia Governor Marvin Griffin, a hard-core segregationist, attempted to defend Jim Crow by preventing Georgia Tech from playing against Pittsburgh fullback Bobby [End Page 169] Grier in New Orleans. Opposition from college students, Georgia Tech fans, and the university’s Board of Regents blocked Griffin’s efforts. Their actions demonstrated that many white Georgians now believed that college sports warranted different treatment from other social and cultural activities, where a rigid color line should still be preserved.
The last and most original case study examines the story of the “Black Fourteen,” a group of African Americans who were dismissed from the University of Wyoming football squad in 1969. The athletes had wanted to wear black armbands when playing against Brigham Young University, in order to protest the racial policies of the Mormon church. Coach Lloyd Eaton interpreted their plan as a direct challenge to his authority and immediately kicked all fourteen off his team. University officials and most Wyoming residents strongly supported Eaton. To them, the athletes had inexplicably become racial militants who had been duped by outside Black Power advocates. The incident obviously contradicted the widespread belief that sports integration always served as a vehicle for improved racial understanding.
Demas does not claim to have written a fully comprehensive study of athletic integration at American universities. He is correct in observing that college sports constituted one...