Between a Rock and a Hard Place

As attitudes about race slowly changed, so too did the complexion of sports

Southern white schools such as Alabama, Louisiana State University, Mississippi and Georgia had long been lily-white, refusing to admit black undergraduate students until the mid-1960s. Things got even more complicated when it came to intersectional athletic competition.

To these universities, sports were above all else a social function, and as such, the social order in the South had to be maintained, regardless of where the game actually took place. If a team were to lose to an integrated team, the “natural” hierarchy would be challenged and racial equality would be promoted by default.[7]

In order to avoid such an affront to Southern sensibilities, the “gentleman’s agreement” was born, and prevailed for the first two decades of the 20th century. Though informal in nature, the policy suggested (read: demanded) that non-Southern schools should withhold any black players on roster for games against teams from below the Mason Dixon line. In complying with this unwritten rule, schools from the North — the part of America where blacks were supposed to be safe from segregation— sacrificed their black athletes in efforts to have a good relationship with Southern teams on the gridiron.[8]

In the 1930s, civil rights activists and journalists across the country began to challenge the gentlemen’s agreement and the ethically bogus voluntary practice of benching black players.

Ohio State found itself at the center of controversy in the beginning of the decade. In 1930, the Buckeyes had William Bell, the university’s first black football player and All-Big Ten tackle. Word leaked that Ohio State planned to sit him in their upcoming contest against Navy (the US Naval Academy, located in Annapolis, MD, was all-white), and despite protests from fans, sports writers and the NAACP, THE Ohio State university president George W. Rightmire authorized Bell to be benched. [9]

The following season in 1931, Bell’s place in the starting line up against another Southern team fired up much discussion once again. When Ohio State played Vanderbilt, the Buckeyes kept Bell on the sidelines, and suffered a 26-21 defeat that disgusted sports writers and fans alike.

One sportswriter even declared after the game that, “rabid Buckeye fans…think that Bell was shelved for the Rebels; that Ohio had joined the Confederacy.”[10]

Several weeks later, however, Bell suited up and started in the rematch against Navy, and the Buckeyes cruised to a 20-0 victory. He made such an impact on the game that several Navy players even shook hands with him after the contest.[11]

Bell’s presence in a game against a “Southern” school signaled a subtle shift in racial policies in sports. It also ushered in changes at Navy, which previously refused to participate in games against integrated teams. Though it now would participate in integrated games, no African-American would represent the Midshipmen on the field until 1966.

In 1936, the University of North Carolina became the first major Southern school to play in an integrated football game, when it faced a New York University team that featured one black player, at the Polo Grounds. The game took place without any racial incidents, and North Carolina eked out a 14-13 victory.[12]

In the aftermath, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP made the snarky comment when writing in the New York Amsterdam News: “The University of North Carolina is still standing, and none of the young men representing it on the gridiron appears to be any worse off for having spent the afternoon competing against a Negro player.” [13]

These were among the few moments of triumph against the bigotry laced into Southern football, but many notable programs like Boston College, NYU and even those out West like the University of California and UCLA – schools that have long prided themselves as open-minded, tolerant and progressive universities – still regularly kowtowed to Southern preferences.

Meanwhile, the HBCUs thrived athletically in their bubble of isolation of the Jim Crow South.

Throughout the 1940s and 50s, the rest of the United States started to develop a skepticism about allowing “separate but equal” practices to continue. The hypocrisy of sending troops overseas to fight wars on the premise of fighting for freedom while turning a blind eye to the denial of civil rights for black at home became hard to justify to many Americans.

Specifically in relation to integrated sports, the calls to end compliance with the gentleman’s agreement grew louder during this time . A chorus of voices — including those of the small number of black students on integrated campuses, their white supporters and sports writers — forced the schools in the South to begrudgingly accept integrated athletic completion.

The Southern teams would have faced the prospect of having to forfeit the profits, but more importantly, the prestige and respect that would come from challenging — and beating — their foes in the North.[14]

In 1954 the Supreme Court struck down legally segregated schools in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, and the Civil Rights Movement was on. But as far as sports were concerned, the push for integrated athletics was never just about equal rights — it was always about competitive advantages as well.

As one astute student at Texas Western College wrote in the student newspaper in 1955: “Besides the humanitarian principles involved in considering such a question [whether to integrate the university’s sports], we might also look at it from a selfish point of view. The Negro race has many good athletes…[M]aybe we could get some of them.”[15]

It was the victory they had long foreseen, yet for the coaches at HBCUs, who owed much of their ability to build powerhouse dynasties to the fact that black athletes were not allowed to attend school or play sports with white students, the prospect of de-segregation was bitter sweet.

True, they had fought for this. On one hand, a world where their own children would be unencumbered in their pursuits of a better life was something many HBCU coaches wanted dearly. On the other hand, it would be their loss — they knew that desegregation would mean the bigger, better-funded universities would come knocking, and it would be hard to compete for top talent against schools with state-of-the-art facilities, modern equipment, TV contracts and perhaps most importantly, boosters with deep pockets.

The coaches stood at a crossroad, and as leaders within the black community, they disappointed many because they failed to visibly take up the cause for civil rights. Some of the athletes they were trying to mold even became frustrated and angry with them.

If anyone knew how oppressive segregation was, it would have been the coaches – they came of age during the worst of it, hardened by the realities of white supremacy. Inspired by athletes/activists at that time like Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali, their athletes thought it was unconscionable that coaches like Robinson would not be speaking loudly, calling for integration.

For Robert Bennett, a former Southern quarterback (1965-1969) and later coach (1980s), having to watch civil rights activism from the sidelines was tough. In the four years he spent on campus as an athlete, Southern’s student body vocally protested many things, from better campus-life conditions to the National Guard’s presence on school grounds, to the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

“I was in favor of everything they [the student protestors] did. But our coaches told us we could not participate; we had to practice. We were there for football games, for competition. The coaches wanted us to focus on that.” Bennett said. “I would have marched, had I been allowed.”

Though the coaches wanted to keep their athletes off the frontlines of activism, they encouraged Bennett and his teammates to be informed about the way their world was changing.

“We talked all the time about the Civil Rights Moment. They [the coaches] would tell us about what was going on, but they didn’t want us to participate personally.”

The coaches understood that as athletes, Bennett and his teammates had much more to lose than their classmates if they were involved in an incident while protesting.

“People were being put in jail,” Bennett remembered, “The National Guard came to campus, and one guy was shot in the leg on our way home from practice.”

That guy was Donald Sepp, a former standout defensive back for the Jaguars. He never fully recovered from the gunshot wound to retake the field, just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His career was cut short.

“We were frightened because we were just walking home,” Bennett said. “All of a sudden, these guys with guns showed up. So we dispersed, we ran.

“They would put the dogs on you, and our coaches didn’t want that.”

Instead of protesting, the coaches chose to challenge racism by sending dozens of black athletes on to NFL success. And it worked, but it also aided in generating more and more discussions in Southern white society about whether the major powers in the SEC were missing out on game-changing athletes by refusing to allow black players on their teams.


In the Beginning



New Directions