Keyshawn Johnson Wants the N.F.L. to Remember Its ‘Forgotten Four’

Keyshawn Johnson’s historical past lesson started with a query. In 2020, Bob Glauber, a Newsday reporter, wished to put in writing a e book about Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, whose signings to the Los Angeles Rams in 1946 broke an efficient ban on Black gamers within the N.F.L.

Glauber figured he would ask Johnson, who had been an outspoken member of the Jets within the late ’90s when Glauber lined the staff, about them. Johnson, like each gamers, is a Los Angeles native, although he performed faculty soccer at U.S.C. lengthy after Washington and Strode have been standouts on the identical 1939 U.C.L.A. staff as Jackie Robinson.

But Johnson stated he had no thought of their significance as two of the 4 Black gamers to interrupt the N.F.L.’s coloration barrier. He didn’t even know that N.F.L. homeowners had struck a gents’s settlement to not signal Black gamers that lasted from 1934 to 1946. The ban, Johnson realized, was solely damaged after businessmen and journalists in Los Angeles pressured the Rams into signing Washington and Strode in 1946. Invoice Willis and Marion Motley joined the Cleveland Browns the identical yr.

Johnson’s lack of know-how was an indication of how little the N.F.L. had performed to have fun the gamers. However that may change on Saturday, when the Professional Soccer Corridor of Fame will give its Pioneer Award to the gamers’ households at its annual enshrinement ceremony.

It could not have occurred with out Johnson and Glauber, who lobbied the Corridor for the consideration and wrote “The Forgotten First: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Bill Willis and the Breaking of the N.F.L. Color Barrier,” which was launched in 2021.

In a cellphone interview, Johnson and Glauber spoke about why the historical past of the so-called Forgotten Four has gone largely unrecognized, the consequences of the N.F.L.’s racist previous and the affect of giving the 4 pioneering gamers their due.

This interview has been flippantly edited for readability and condensed.

Keyshawn, you wrote that you simply didn’t find out about Washington or Strode though you performed faculty soccer in the identical Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that they did after they attended U.C.L.A.

KEYSHAWN JOHNSON You understand, when you consider it rising up, whenever you discuss African American communities or Black faculties, there’s solely 4 Black folks talked about in historical past: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman. I imply, it’s fairly fundamental. Jackie Robinson in sports activities. Jesse Owens in sports activities and a bit little bit of Arthur Ashe sprinkled in. There’s no actual deep dive into the historical past. And once we get to varsity, it’s rinse and repeat yet again. They’re going to show us all about white historical past.

So when Bob introduced this to my consideration, it piqued my curiosity as a result of it was in my very own yard, inside blocks of the place I grew up. I had no data about it as a result of it simply wasn’t talked about. There’s a monument on the Coliseum of Kenny Washington. However I don’t know if it’s up there on the Rose Bowl. I simply don’t ever keep in mind seeing it, and I’m going to a variety of video games there.

Probably the most compelling sections of the e book was the dialogue of the implicit ban on signing Black gamers. You level to George Preston Marshall, the segregationist proprietor of the Washington franchise, as having led the ban, however you notice that the opposite homeowners went together with him.

JOHNSON It by no means occurs with only one man. You possibly can’t name everyone a racist, however whenever you tolerate and also you ignore and also you flip your head the opposite approach, you’re simply as culpable. You’re simply as a lot at fault as those who initiated it. That’s the way in which it’s in skilled sports activities and in politics at present. Similar stuff, totally different years.

For many years, Main League Baseball has celebrated Jackie Robinson and confronted the ugly legacy of that league’s coloration barrier. Why has it taken the N.F.L. so lengthy to do the identical?

JOHNSON On the time, baseball was the primary sport in America when Jackie Robinson was doing his deal. Whereas in soccer, you had Fritz Pollard [Pollard was the first Black head coach in pro football and won a championship as a player for the Akron Pros in 1920.] after which a stoppage at a time when faculty soccer and baseball have been larger. The league tends to get a variety of issues unsuitable after which attempt to right them later, so it’s not out of the realm that it might have simply fully flown over their heads.

BOB GLAUBER This isn’t a very righteous story, banning Black gamers. And now, Black gamers make up roughly 70 % of your complete rosters of the N.F.L. The league didn’t cowl itself in glory with this story.

That stated, once we went to the league and sort of appeared for evaluation and opinion, beginning with Roger Goodell, he owned it. He stated: “That story is true, and we can’t change that and we have to accept it.”

The 4 gamers, that they had diverging careers: Some lasted longer. Some lasted, really, fairly briefly. Do any of their private tales resonate louder with you, Keyshawn?

JOHNSON It’s simply extra about how they have been handled by a few of their teammates, each good and dangerous. These tales all the time follow me. How folks like George Preston Marshall vindictively handled folks, but was nonetheless in a position to personal a staff and wish Black gamers to serve him. To me, it’s thoughts boggling. On the similar time, these gamers to nonetheless battle by it and never let it personal them or take their spirits away for doing stuff that they need to do, which was play skilled sports activities. Motley bought mainly blackballed, couldn’t play or coach within the Nationwide Soccer League, however he continued to battle by it. That perseverance, that psychological toughness is what it’s all about to me.

Race stays a central pressure within the N.F.L. with the Brian Flores swimsuit that alleged he was discriminated in opposition to in hiring, racial bias within the concussions settlement and criticism that there are few staff homeowners of coloration. So will these 4 gamers being honored on the Corridor of Fame change the dynamic?

GLAUBER This simply looks as if an emotional conclusion to their story as a result of the Corridor of Fame is honoring them. However to me, it’s actually the start of extra consciousness of who they have been, what they did and why they have been so essential as a result of they don’t seem to be family names like Jackie Robinson. I don’t know in the event that they ever shall be. However they need to be.