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State of the Black Athlete

‘Some Observations on the NFL and Negro Players’

Newly discovered league memo from 1966 anticipates controversies over Kaepernick protest, Rooney Rule

History, they say, tends to repeat itself. And yet those repetitions seem to often catch us off guard. For example, how surprised would you be to learn that an NFL executive essentially predicted the Colin Kaepernick controversy, the Rooney Rule and the increasing role of black players more than half a century ago?

All that and more is contained in a confidential NFL memo from 1966 that was recently discovered in an old file by a memorabilia collector. The memo, a major historical find that has never before been made public, originated in the commissioner’s office, with the subject line “Some Observations on the NFL and Negro Players.” It takes note of the growing number of black players in the league, urges the league and its teams to take a more proactive approach toward treating such players “as whole men,” encourages teams to hire more black employees throughout their organizations, recommends the development of support systems for young black players and warns that a team releasing a black player who’d been outspoken on civil rights issues could spark major protests — a scenario that sounds eerily similar to the Kaepernick situation.

The five-page memo was written by Claude “Buddy” Young, a former NFL running back who had been hired in 1964 as the league’s director of player relations, making him the first black executive to be employed by a major sports league. Young sent the memo to then-commissioner Pete Rozelle, who in turn distributed it to the league’s teams with a cover sheet urging them to “Please give it your careful consideration.” Young died in 1983 and Rozelle in 1996, but the memo is a fascinating addition to their legacies. It shows that at least one voice within the NFL was pursuing a surprisingly progressive agenda in the mid-1960s, and that Rozelle gave that agenda his tacit approval by distributing the memo throughout the league.

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“It’s a very historically significant document, a visionary document,” Harry Edwards, a sociologist and activist who has served as a consultant to the San Francisco 49ers and the Golden State Warriors, said after viewing the memo. “It should be in Canton, enshrined in a case like the Declaration of Independence.”

Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, agreed. “The proposals Buddy Young spelled out here were just so forward-thinking for that period of time. He basically proposed what player programs eventually became 20 years later. This document is something activists and scholars will refer to far into the future.”

The memo’s journey to public light is almost as remarkable as its content. It recently turned up in the files of former Denver Broncos general manager Jim Burris, who ran the team for only two seasons — 1965 and 1966. (The NFL agreed to merge with the rival AFL in June of ’66, which apparently explains why the memo was sent to the Broncos — still an AFL team at the time.) Burris died in 2012, and in 2014 his office files were acquired via an online auction by Tom Jacobsen, a collector who specializes in Broncos memorabilia. Jacobsen didn’t have time to sift through the files then, so he stashed them in the crawl space of his suburban Denver home. They sat there for more than three years before he finally hauled them out and began examining them toward the end of 2017. That’s when he discovered the memo.

“When I saw the subject line, where it talked about ‘Negro players,’ my first reaction was revulsion, honestly, because I thought it might be a racist document,” said Jacobsen. “Then I started reading through it, and I realized it was actually very progressive and courageous.”

Rozelle’s cover sheet indicates that copies of the memo were sent to all the other NFL and AFL teams, but none have surfaced until now.

An NFL spokesman, asked whether the league had any comment on the memo, said, “The NFL has a long history of valuing diversity and an unwavering commitment to inclusion across all facets of the league. We have made tremendous strides but know we still have work to do.”

The memo mentions several black NFL players from the 1960s by name. Most of them, including Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Bob Hayes, Los Angeles Rams running back Dick Bass, Baltimore Colts defensive lineman Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb and New York Giants defensive back Carl “Spider” Lockhart (misspelled throughout the memo as “Lockart”), are now deceased. Another, Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers, is alive but suffering from dementia.

Gale Sayers, right, signed a contract to play for Chicago Bears of the National Football League. His wife, Linda, stands next to him. At left, Bears coach George “Papa Bear” Halas puts his arm around Buddy Young, former NFL star. Young is credited with luring Sayers into the Bears’.

AP Photo/Paul Cannon

Former Cleveland Browns great Jim Brown comes up several times in the text. At one point, he is described by Young as having “a hard, militant view of American society.”

Brown, who turns 82 later this month, said he knew Young “pretty well” back in the day. After reading the memo, his reaction was tempered with a healthy dose of his trademark personal drive. “These comments by Buddy Young are very relevant, but they’re idealistic in a certain sense,” he said. “I’m all in favor of advancement for African-American athletes — I want to make that very clear — but the league can only do so much because it is a business. In the business world, there’s a lot of hardship, but there’s also a lot of ways of addressing that and advancing in society, and I really always looked to myself and how I participated in my own advancement.”

In some respects, the memo feels antiquated, coming from a time when “Negroes” was common parlance, most black NFL players came from small black colleges rather than major universities, NFL salaries were so low that many players needed offseason jobs to help make ends meet, and the first Super Bowl was still about five months away. But many other parts of the text seem contemporary, and even prophetic. For example:

• The memo notes the increasing percentage of black players on NFL rosters (about 25 percent at the time) and predicts this number is likely to increase. The figure today is about 70 percent.

• The memo urges teams to create orientation programs to train newly drafted players on taxes, personal finance, personal conduct, continuing education, off-field employment and more. Such programs are now standard throughout professional sports.

• The memo recommends that every team have one full-time black front-office employee — “perhaps the assistant player personnel director” — who, besides his regular duties, would stay in touch with the concerns of the local black community. “That basically anticipated the role that [49ers coach] Bill Walsh created for me 20 years later, in 1986,” said Edwards, the former 49ers consultant. “Bill knew that with the changing demographics of the game, you needed someone on every team whose specific assignment is to deal with the unique issues that these athletes are bringing into the locker room.”

• The memo urges teams to hire black employees throughout their organizational structures: “They should be represented as much on the sidelines, in the front-office, and in the background as on the field. They should be found among ticket sellers, ticket takers, ushers, concession attendants, grounds and equipment keepers and attendants, trainers — in short, everywhere. And deliberate pains should be taken to assure their presence.” There’s no mention of black representation among coaching staffs, an idea that may have been too radical for 1966. It would be another 23 years before the Raiders made Art Shell the first black head coach in the NFL’s modern era, but the memo’s emphasis on minority hiring prefigures the eventual enactment of the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior operations positions.

• Most tellingly, with the civil rights movement leading to increased tensions throughout much of America at the time, the memo warns that “some incident, however slight (a Negro player whose militant stand on the [civil] rights issue being cut by one team, for example, strictly on the basis of his performance on the field) could spark a demonstration, large or small, or picketing by the more fiery extremist groups.” It reads like a fortune-teller’s vision of the Kaepernick controversy and the recent national anthem protests.

From left, San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid kneel in protest during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Kaepernick, through his attorney, Mark Geragos, declined to comment on the memo. But Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Malcolm Jenkins, one of the founders of the Players Coalition, which has been working with the league to address social issues and criminal justice reform, saw the parallels between 1966 and the Kaepernick situation.

“It was almost like a premonition,” said Jenkins. “He could recognize that these players still have to go back to their communities and be black men in America, and at some point they might feel they needed to take a stand. Honestly, some of the things in the memo are almost verbatim some of the same things we’ve been talking about. But it’s a good feeling to see that what we’re doing is not something new, and that we’ve actually kind of picked up the baton from those who’ve gotten us this far.”

It’s not clear what response, if any, the memo generated in 1966, although Edwards said his experience 20 years later with the 49ers suggests that most teams simply ignored Young’s proposals. “The fact that we instituted all of the programs that Buddy Young either specifically called for or alluded to, and had to sell it to the league 20 years later, is indicative of the wall of resistance, or ignorance, or complacency — probably all three — that he was up against,” he said. “I will guarantee you, 52 years ago, Buddy Young made some enemies with that memo. He’d make some enemies if he wrote it today.”

Indeed, the memo acknowledges that some team owners might not be sympathetic to Young’s proposals but argues that such efforts would nonetheless be good for business: “The NFL happens to be in a position to make great contributions — not only to the Negro cause, which admittedly not every owner might agree to, but to its own competitive and financial situation, which is important to every owner, as well as to the League itself. Little or nothing has ever been done in this realm by professional baseball, basketball, or boxing; football has the opportunity to make a real contribution.”

If you’ve never heard of Buddy Young, you’re not alone. He’s little remembered now but holds an important place in football history. Despite being only 5-foot-4, he was an All-American running back at Illinois and co-MVP of the 1947 Rose Bowl, and he was later inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He played nine seasons as a professional and at one point held the NFL record for the longest kickoff return, at 104 yards. His No. 22 was the first number retired by the Baltimore Colts. He worked in the commissioner’s office from 1964 until 1983, when he died in a car accident at the age of 57.

Five decades after Young wrote his manifesto, has the league made good on the vision he laid out? Former NFL wide receiver Anquan Boldin, another founder of the Players Coalition, doesn’t think so. “If you just compare that memo to today, you’ll see how little we’ve accomplished. I think it’s an indictment of us as Americans to see what was happening in 1966 and how little we’ve done to address those issues here in 2018.”

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Ironically, it was last Aug. 19, 51 years to the day after Rozelle sent Young’s memo to the teams, that Jenkins, Boldin and the other members of the Players Coalition sent their own memo to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

“That’s why we’re trying to take action,” said Boldin, “because I don’t want to see these same issues continually coming back in another 51, 52 years.”