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Black History Month: UCLA and its Everlasting Effects on the Sports World

As we find ourselves in the middle of Black History Month, I find it appropriate to share the stories of those who helped to desegregate the world of sports.

Kenny Washington at UCLA's first gridiron practice of the 1938 football season. (NFL)

Kenny Washington at UCLA’s first gridiron practice of the 1938 football season. (NFL)


As we find ourselves in the middle of Black History Month, I find it appropriate to share the stories of those who helped to desegregate the world of sports.

Take a moment to imagine the courage that it takes in order to be the first to take action.  What does it feel like to lead a movement?  No matter how big or how small, nearly everyone has led a movement at some point in their lifetime.  Whether fundraising to help a family in need or creating awareness for Leukemia, courage is apparent when one is faced with such a task.  In terms of an athlete, every player on the field has the equal opportunity to be a leader, but three remarkable athletes at the University of California at Los Angeles fought tough circumstances to elicit this right.

Jackie Robinson was not the first black pioneer in the sports world.  To the disbelief of many, Robinson was not the first to break through the color barrier.  Robinson has acquired the everlasting spotlight for breaking the color barrier in professional sports because of his excellence on the baseball diamond and his sparkling charisma.  Robinson, a four-sport athlete at the University of California at Los Angeles, playing baseball, basketball, football, and track, had two teammates who actually preceded him in his efforts to desegregate professional sports Robinson’s teammates on the football team at UCLA were equally courageous in their acts involving professional sports.  UCLA Bruins, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode paved the way for Robinson’s success.

Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, teammates of Robinson and running backs for the UCLA Bruins, were two of the four black men on the 1939 UCLA Bruins football team.  During his time at UCLA, Washington set a school record with 1,914 rushing yards.  His record stood untouched for 34 years.  In 1939, Washington, leading the nation in total offense, became the first consensus All-American in the history of UCLA’s football.  Fellow pioneer and fellow black teammate, Woody Strode, described the atmosphere when Kenny Washington entered the UCLA Coliseum for the final time to be ecstatic, as if “the pope of Rome had come out.”  After becoming a well-regarded running back, Washington faced obstacles as he hoped to set the precedent for becoming the first black NFL player.

Alongside Kenny Washington was his teammate, Woody Strode, another star football player at UCLA.  Washington, Strode, and Robinson made up the running backs for the UCLA Bruins in 1939.  It was a rarity to have so many African Americans on one college team, given that there were only a few dozen African Americans participating in College Football.  At the time, the National Football League, like Major League Baseball, was segregated.  After Washington graduated from UCLA, he had an offer from George Halas, owner of the Chicago Bears.  NFL owners quickly overturned Halas’ offer and denied Washington from joining the NFL.  After spending four years in the Pacific Coast Football League, Washington was given another opportunity to join an NFL team.  As the Cleveland Rams were moving to the Los Angeles Coliseum, the owners of the new stadium required that the team becomes desegregated.  On May 7, 1946, the Los Angles Rams signed Kenny Washington and his best friend, Woody Strode.  Together, the two young men faced the daunting task of integrating the NFL.

Approximately one year later, it was Jackie Robinson’s turn to follow the lead of his football teammates.  But, unlike Washington and Strode, Robinson was stepping onto the baseball diamond. After leaving UCLA and serving in the military, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League.  Robinson’s competitive character and strong will, in conjunction with his tremendous talent, opened the eyes of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ ownership.  Robinson aimed to diminish the unwritten segregation rules of Major League Baseball.

On April 15, 1947, Robinson made his debut and faced the racial scrutiny of the fans at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York.  Robinson persevered and after a few games, he overcame his shaky start, both as a first baseman and as a batter.  His talent was acknowledged and he was rewarded with several accolades throughout his career, including Rookie of the Year and National League Most Valuable Player.  After a few years on the team, Robinson became the Dodgers’ highest paid player with an annual salary of $35,000.  Evidently, racial discrimination did not hinder Robinson’s success.

Although racist forces did not deter Robinson from success, Washington and Strode faced multiple hardships during their short time in the National Football League.  Firstly, prejudice from the fans and fellow players may have had an unfavorable effect on their mentalities and lifestyles.  Washington and Strode did not last in the National Football League, in comparison to Robinson’s ten seasons in Major League Baseball.  After three seasons together on the Los Angeles Rams, Washington and Strode made the decision to leave the game that they loved due to one relentless obstacle: Racism.  After Strode left the National Football League, a reporter questioned him about his time in the league and Strode responded, “If I have to integrate heaven, then I don’t want to go.”  Washington and Strode were the trailblazers who continuously found themselves in the shadows of Robinson and his accolades.

These three black men all experienced the harsh criticism that multicultural athletes still receive in the professional sports world.  These valiant men encountered racism ranging from prejudiced slurs to physical wounds upon their bodies.  With civil disobedience and nonviolent protests, acts of racism have been reduced quite noticeably over the years.  Kenny Washington and Woody Strode first tackled the root of racist problems and entered the National Football League in 1946.  Although the first African American members of the National Football League did not become icons like Robinson, they did succeed at making football a sport that everyone can watch and play.  Athletes, still today, continue to fight for equality and respect in the sports world.

Although society cannot tangibly feel the effects of these three UCLA Bruins, it is easy to see the path that has been created for equality in sports.  Recently in 2014, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers released multiple racist remarks.  In response, the National Basketball Association ordered Sterling to sell the team and pay a $2.5 million fine.  Additionally, Sterling has received a lifetime ban from the National Basketball Association, prohibiting him from attending any National Basketball Association events.  Adam Silver, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, released the following statements regarding racism in sports:

“The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful. Sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic league.  I am personally distraught that the views expressed by Mr. Sterling came from within an institution that has historically taken such a leadership role in matters of race relations and caused current and former players, coaches, fans and partners of the NBA to question their very association with the league. To them, and pioneers of the game like Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, Sweetwater Clifton, the great Bill Russell and particularly Magic Johnson, I apologize.”

Even though racism is still seen in sports today, commissioners, like Adam Silver, have fortified their beliefs and taken action against the discriminators.  Once again, the three demolishers of the color barrier can be partially thanked for the ousting of a bigoted millionaire.

Additionally, sports have become an outlet of peace and tranquility in the eyes of struggling children worldwide thanks in part to Washington, Strode, and Robinson.  Furman University Philosophy student, Stephen Lintner, studies the use of sports to escape poverty.  In his article, “Sports and Poverty: Misrepresentations and Truths in the Youth Mentality,” Lintner discusses the impact of sports on society, especially children living impoverished lifestyles.  Upon the conclusion of his research, Lintner expresses his final thoughts about the impact of sports on society:

“On a more global scale, sport is a universal language and can be understood by everyone, rich or poor, black or white, Kenyan or Slovenian.  It has been proven that physical activity helps brain development at a young age and stimulates brain productivity. It can be used as an escape by many to forget about the realities of their daily struggles to make ends meet or as a way to channel aggression into a healthy outlet.”

Washington, Strode, and Robinson all forged the path of equal participation in sports.  Without them, children and even grown men and women would not have the opportunity to gain experiences through the means of sport.  Sports serve as an educational tool to decrease stress and gain insight into the lives of others through the act of playing.

What would professional sports look like without the prominence of UCLA athletics?  The impact of these figures is so significant, that perhaps black athletes may have been excluded from professional sports for another year, decade, or possibly even longer.  For without these men, black football players may have only been watched on Saturdays in College Football, and not on Sundays in the National Football League.  Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, and Jackie Robinson opened the world of sports to the multicultural United States.  Being the first to do something, you face the wrath of the population.  These three men all remained true to their heritage at UCLA and expressed their intrepid nature.  Through their courageous acts, Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, and Jackie Robinson remained true to the symbolism of their college mascot, the bruin.  The courage and strength of these civil rights catalysts was parallel to the power of a bear.  The ability to stand their ground and act as bruins proved that Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, and Jackie Robinson were all valiant in their efforts to build the character of future athletes and fans.






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