As we celebrate the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., let's take a moment to celebrate Cincinnati Bengals founder and NFL Hall of Famer, Paul Brown as well. It was Brown's forward thinking as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns that paved the way for the reintegration of African-American players in the NFL.
The NFL had utilized players of color for decades dating back to the early part of the 20th century including African-American Fritz Pollard and Native American Jim Thorpe. But when George Preston Marshall came into the league in 1932 as owner of the Washington Redskins, he pressured other owners into a "gentlemen's agreement" barring blacks from playing in the league.
Paul Brown took over as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns of the AAFL in 1945. Brown was familiar with the play of standout Ohio State lineman, Bill Willis whom Brown had coached there when he was the Buckeyes' head coach. Brown offered Willis a clandestine "tryout" for his Cleveland team. Willis made the team and shortly thereafter, Brown signed Marion Motley who had played with Brown while a part of a US Navy team during World War II.
Brown's Cleveland teams won all four AAFL titles, losing only four games in four years. All was not perfect during that time, however. The AAFL's Miami Seahawks (which would become the Baltimore Colts) refused to let Willis and Motley play in Miami, citing a Florida law prohibiting black men from playing against whites. Paul Brown would add an extra $500 to Willis' and Motley's paychecks while they sat out and promised them he would fix the situation for the future. He did just that, having Miami expelled from the league.
Cleveland was one of three teams (along with the San Francisco 49ers and the newly recreated Baltimore Colts) asked to merge with the NFL in 1950. At the time, only three NFL teams had signed any players of color (Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles). George Marshall was still adamantly opposed to integrating the Redskins, saying, "We'll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites."
Meanwhile, Paul Brown kept signing great players, no matter the color of their skin. Brown signed Syracuse star Jim Brown who went on to stardom there. Ironically, Brown helped finally integrate the Redskins as well. With Marshall facing federal pressure from the Kennedy administration to integrate Washington's team, he drafted Heisman trophy winner Ernie Davis out of Syracuse. When he learned of being drafted by the renowned racist, Marshall, Davis said he would "refuse to play for the SOB." Paul Brown worked out a deal that sent Davis to the Browns in return for Bobby Mitchell. In that way, the Browns got the services of Davis and the Redskins still became integrated.
Sadly, Davis, never played a down for Cleveland after being diagnosed with leukemia. Paul Brown would also be fired in 1963 after a contentious relationship with new Cleveland owner Art Modell.
Paul Brown has always been considered a football pioneer, having instituted the "messenger guard" system, advancing scouting, and helping create the West Coast offense along with Bill Walsh. He's given too little credit for his pioneering attitudes toward race that helped advance the cause for people of color in an era when racial tensions ran high. Brown's signing of Willis and Motley came two years before Jackie Robinson stand in Ebbets Field, breaking baseball's color barrier.
Like Branch Rickey after him, Brown was far more concerned with a player's ability and character than their color, a sentiment well-respected today as we celebrate the life of Dr. King.
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