AFL players can teach us a lesson on dealing with racism

Jonathan Alcorn

Richard Sherman knows something a couple Denver Broncos pointed out almost 50 years ago - you have to speak up to stop injustice. As former Denver Broncos running back Abner Haynes said about a 1965 boycott over race issues: "It was time for some men to stand up and be counted."

The Los Angeles Clippers topped national headlines last month and have remained a major news focus - not as much for their appearance in the NBA play-offs as much as for the racist remarks of their soon-to-be former owner, Donald Sterling.

And Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, not one to stay out of the limelight, sounded off on the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell over their lack of attention to changing the name of the Washington Redskins, which Sherman and others consider a race issue.

"That's why a lot of people shy away from the conversation that I forced on us in January," Sherman told Time Magazine. "People want ... the racism to be done, they want to believe everything is great and hunky-dory. And it's not. There's a lot of racism still alive and still active."

Sherman is absolutely right here. The Clippers and Redskins individual battles over race issue reminded sports fans that intolerance for difference is still a stark reality - not only in our country - but also on our courts and fields.

"People want to believe everything is great and hunky-dory. And it's not. There's a lot of racism still alive and still active." -Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks

We'd like to think that sports is one of the great equalizers - where fans and athletes of different colors, different religious backgrounds, different sexual orientations, different political preferences can put aside prejudice and come together for the common goal of winning. And if we're lucky, it will lead to genuine acceptance of those different from ourselves.

And in many ways sports does just that, though the Sterling incident is a sobering reminder that we're still working on it.

But if racism that exists in sports is going to change, it has to start with the players. Though I'm not particularly a fan of what comes out of Sherman's mouth when he starts talking, the fact that he's talking can be a good thing.

Just ask the African American players of the American Football League back in the 1960s - including a few Denver Broncos. Professional football learned an early lesson in racial equality that offers a great lesson for all of us even today.

Six months after the Civil Rights Act was passed, the AFL was set to play its All Star game in New Orleans. The city wanted to get a franchise and it promised the somewhat forward-thinking and integrated AFL that all players would be welcome.

But when taxis, restaurants and hotels refused to serve the black players, those players agreed to boycott the game.

"It was time for some men to stand up and be counted. I think that's what we did," says running back Abner Haynesin this edited clip from the documentary, Full Color Football (which was first highlighted by MHR's Jess Place in his "Remembering the Past" Horse Tracks).

Haynes was let go from the Kansas City Chiefs because of the boycott and picked up by the Denver Broncos. Though he expected some backlash and figured his career and paycheck were in jeopardy, Haynes also didn't want the people who looked up to him to think he didn't do what he could to enforce some change.

"My general manager wrote me a two-page letter about how a football player's role is not to help his people. All I'm supposed to do is play football and keep my mouth shut," Haynes recalled.  "But I'm more concerned with being a good dad and that my son's not hearing 20-30 years later that I chickened out and didn't have no [sic] backbone."

Haynes and nearly a dozen players - including Broncos' Willie Brown - took a stand and it worked. The game was moved to Houston and the league showed it stood behind not just its players but behind the public outcry - both in American football and American culture - for progressive change.

Hall of Fame tackle Ron Mix with the San Diego Chargers was one of the white players who joined the boycott in 1965. He recently pointed out that his teammates back then had no choice but to make the public stand, but that today it's the fans who should be boycotting the Clippers ... or other teams whose personnel are of questionable character.

I agree to a point.

Fans need to be part of this, no doubt. None of us is without accountability when it comes to standing up for what is right. When we keep watching and keep buying tickets, we are indirectly supporting players, coaches and the front office in whatever philosophies they adhere to - whether it's racist remarks or just turning away when players take performance-enhancing drugs or engage in criminal behavior.

But fans can't be organized en masse to take a stand against a team or a sport. Our job is to support the players and the team. If there is injustice, players need to take the lead.

That's what makes the AFL boycott all the more impressive. Those players had a lot to lose and no big-time contracts to fall back on, but they knew the right thing to do was fight.

Ultimately, the league and the fans supported the move - even if begrudgingly - and change was in the works.

That's an example we can all learn from.

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