Book: Integrating the Gridiron
Photo Courtesy of Lane Demas
Header Photo: USGA/Chris Keane
Author: Lane Demas
Dr. Lane Demas is a history professor at Central Michigan University and the author of Game of Privilege: An African American History of Golf and Integrating the Gridiron: Black Civil Rights and American College Football. Lane was also in the recent ESPN film, "Football Is US," celebrating the 150th anniversary of college football.
1. As a white American, what was the toughest thing to believe about some of the racism football players you researched were experiencing?
Well, as a history professor I’d say it was all believable, unfortunately. Less surprising was fan vitriol. More surprising was the extent to which some elite educational and political leaders (like school presidents, state governors, etc.) were willing to brazenly level racial criticisms at players. And that could even include folks associated with a player’s own school.
Just because someone was invited to enroll in college and participate on a football team, doesn’t necessarily mean they were welcomed.
2. You once said that a lot of your research for Integrating the Gridiron was spent reviewing “historical African-American newspapers”, did you notice a change in how these newspapers spoke about college athletics, specifically football, as more integration began?
Black sportswriters worked tirelessly to promote more opportunities and better treatment for black athletes, especially collegians. But they weren’t always in agreement among each other, or with athletes themselves, on the specifics.
For example, when well-known halfback Lou Montgomery seemed to publicly condone (at least tacitly) Boston College’s decision to bench him for games against all-white teams, some black sportswriters understood and sympathized with the position he was in – while others were far more critical.
Black sportswriters also played a key role in keeping the fire burning for HBCU football. They often lamented how piecemeal integration threatened black college programs, and they continued to celebrate the unique, historic rivalries and culture that surround HBCU games.
3. What was your least favorite thing you learned while researching for this book?
The level of support Wyoming’s white community gave to the University of Wyoming’s decision to kick all fourteen black players off its football team in 1969, particularly the racial undertones behind some of that support (i.e., waving confederate flags, etc.).
4. What was your favorite thing you learned while researching for this book?
The 1955 Supreme Court decision in Holmes v. Atlanta, which integrated Atlanta’s municipal golf courses. That led to my next project, which eventually became a book titled Game of Privilege: An African American History of Golf (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
5. How has writing this book changed the way you watch college sports and more specifically college football?
Before, I was not a particularly huge fan of watching football, and fairly cynical about college sports. I still watch some and enjoy it as best I can, but I’m probably more cynical now than ever. And I still wouldn’t call myself a big fan. That’s more common than you’d think, by the way: Ken Burns just made a 16-hour documentary on the history of country music but said he wasn’t much of a “fan” when he started. Sometimes it’s nice to have someone outside fandom bring a different perspective.
6. Do you think that paying student-athletes is a good idea?
Above my expertise and pay grade! Sure, why not. Will it change the game or “ruin” it? I don’t know, but I have no problem if the popularity of college athletics declines. We still seem to treat college athletes differently from other students.
I do know that universities already pay student workers to do all kinds of things and that they already allow other students to profit from their talents. And I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t prevent a music student from playing paid gigs with the Boston Symphony because the student also plays for the university orchestra, or prevent a drama student from starring in a Hollywood blockbuster because they’ve already signed on for a student production of Macbeth.
Yes, it’s not exactly the same thing. I get it. I just feel that the whole discussion of student-athletes is so easily removed from the broader world of higher education and all the diverse, wonderful things America’s college students do every day, including things they do to earn money and college credit.
7. If you were in charge of the NCAA starting today, what would be the first thing that you’d change?
Way above my expertise and pay grade! I’m, again, a fan of simply treating college athletes the same as any other students and being honest. If something is worth doing on a college campus than it’s worth studying.
If you can’t major in it, the university shouldn’t be sponsoring it. An overwhelming majority of college athletes are fine students, and they aren’t just going to college to play sports. However, for the few who feel they are in that position, why not just major in “sport performance,” like students in music, theater, or dance performance? Study sport – its rich history, varied associated industries, etc. – receive college credit for all the work put in playing for the team, and get a degree in sport performance that honestly reflects that particular student’s desire, time, talents, and experience while in college.
Is such a degree worthwhile? Maybe, maybe not. But universities already have a vast range of degree programs, some “the market” (and parents) like, others not so much.
Lost in the NCAA debates is the fact that people receive college credit for doing all types of things. My mother got credit for bowling at the University of Oklahoma in 1963. Embarrassing for her son? Certainly. But it wasn’t an academic scandal.
8. How much do you think that race plays a part in college athletics today?
It plays a big role for a lot of reasons. The recent football protest at the University of Missouri highlights how many college athletes remained linked to the broader issues (and organizations) related to race, diversity, and inclusion on their campuses and the surrounding communities.
And one historical concern remains: using predominantly black athletic teams to “brand” predominantly white campuses allows some schools to face less criticism about diversity, while potentially misleading people about the reality of racial demographics at their favorite institutions.
9. In what ways have race relations improved since the period of time that Integrating the Gridiron is set?
They have improved in dramatic ways. Nonwhite students and college athletes alike are now far more empowered to speak out. In particular, the popularity of football and basketball means that those players have more power today than ever, and a growing number recognize that power. When the Missouri players threatened to boycott a game, the university backed down. That’s unthinkable just a generation or two ago.
10. In what areas do race relations still need to improve in college athletics today?
Many colleges are trying to work in a range of areas to improve enrollment and retention for nonwhite students. Athletics should no longer be seen as a way to bring diversity to a predominantly white campus, which is how many configured it for years.
Generally, whenever the only black students on a campus were athletes, things didn’t work out for long, tensions increased, and overall diversity sometimes even decreased. Having more nonwhite students on a campus – and a broader range of experience among those nonwhite students – is historically the best way to improve the college experience for black athletes. (As it does for all students, by the way!)
11. Why did you feel that it was important that a book like Integrating the Gridiron was written?
There was a lot published about the history of the NCAA and college football, including a lot of great stuff published on race and college athletics. But I kept coming across these key examples in history that everyone cited and mentioned, but I never really found them written up by a historian.
I thought I could make at least a small contribution. Sport is a wonderful (and rare) truly interdisciplinary field. A lot of great sport analysis comes from sociologists, psychologists, journalists, media or visual studies scholars, kinesiologists, you name it. My field of training was straight American history, not sport. So, again, I thought I might bring some outsider analysis to the subject.
The problem, of course, is that one definition of outsider is “someone who is ill-informed”…!
12. What’s the best book you have read in 2019 thus far?
Reading The Hobbit for the first time to my five-year-old son.
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