At its inception in 1920, the NFL’s precursor, the American Professional Football Association, had several minority players, including African-American players: between 1920 and 1926, nine black players suited up for NFL squads. It was also common, due to the number of talented players that were produced by the Carlisle Indian School’s football team, to see teams (both inside and outside the NFL) openly market Native Americans; in fact, the Oorang Indians of 1922 to 1923 consisted entirely of Native American talent.
However, since Carlisle had closed in 1918, the talent pool of Indians had dried up. Meanwhile, all black players in the NFL (including future Hall of Famer Fritz Pollard) were summarily kicked out prior to the 1927 season for reasons unexplained. From 1928 to 1932, no more than one black player could be found in the league each season, and none played more than two seasons. In 1933, there were two: Joe Lillard and Ray Kemp. Lillard was kicked off the Chicago Cardinals for fighting, while Kemp left to pursue what would become a successful coaching career. The moves left the league as all-white, and Boston Redskins owner George Preston Marshall allegedly used his pressure to keep it that way for the next several years, though each team’s internal politics and cronyism, as well as the rising tide of racism in the United States as a whole, also played a significant role. Even during the wartime years, when much of the NFL’s talent was overseas fighting World War II, players such as Kenny Washington who stayed in the United States were still passed up in favor of white players with normally debilitating medical conditions such as partial blindness.
NFL integration occurred only when the Cleveland Rams wanted to move to Los Angeles, and the venue, the Los Angeles Coliseum, required them to integrate their team. They then signed two black players, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode. Other NFL teams eventually followed suit, but Marshall refused to integrate the Redskins until forced to by the Kennedy administration as a pre-condition for using D.C. Stadium (now RFK Stadium). In spite of this open bias, Marshall was elected to the NFL’s Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. In 1946, the Cleveland Browns of a rival Professional Football league, the All-America Football Conference, signed two black players. By 1960, the NFL’s new competitor, the American Football League, actively recruited players from smaller predominantly black colleges that had been largely ignored by the NFL, giving those schools’ black players the opportunity to play professional football. Early AFL teams averaged more blacks than did their NFL counterparts.
However, despite the NFL’s previous segregationist policies, the clear competitive advantage of AFL teams with liberal signing policies affected the NFL’s drafts. By 1969, a comparison of the two league’s championship team photos showed the AFL’s Chiefs with 23 black players out of 51 players (45%) pictured, while the NFL’s Vikings had 11 blacks, of 42 players (26%) in the photo. Chiefs players have been quoted as saying that one motivating factor in their defeat of the Vikings was their pride in their diverse squad. Recent surveys have shown that the current, post-merger NFL is approximately 57–61% non-white (this includes African Americans, Polynesians, non-white Hispanics, Asians, and people that are mixed race.)