With the extreme popularity of the NFL today, many are unaware of the racial history that so greatly influenced the sport of American football and its current composition. There was once a time when African-Americans were banned from playing professional football altogether.

The growth of the American sporting scene began during the mid-nineteenth century and then accelerated after the Civil War, primarily as a result of urbanization and industrialization. Sadly, participation in this growing sporting experience was greatly affected by race and racism. As America embraced formal legal segregation toward the end of the century, the eviction of African Americans from many professional sports was already underway. African Americans were involved in all of the major popular sports of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ranging from horse racing, baseball, and bicycling to boxing and football. Black athletes were systematically removed from all professional sports with the creation of formal color barriers by the early twentieth century. Professional football was one of the last sports to force black athletes out of its ranks by the 1930s, but one of the first to reintegrate beginning in 1946.

The sport of football has intersected with notions of race in a number of ways. It has been a stage on which ideas about racial superiority and inferiority have played out, and it has been a means for promoting social mobility. In exploring the social history of race and football, one sees the development of “racial” integration, racial separateness by position, the rise of black coaches, racial epithets about football players, and finally the internationalization of the sport.


 

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