Opinion: Here’s a way to celebrate the Rams’ L.A. return — by finally honoring the men who desegregated football 70 years ago

Woody Strode, left, and Kenny Washington, right, with Los Angeles Rams coach Adam Walsh on Sep. 7, 1946.
(Los Angeles Times)

This Sunday, professional football will return to Los Angeles for the first time in 21 years. Well, technically 36 years; the Rams played their final 14 California seasons in Orange County before jumping ship to St. Louis.

Most indications are the Rams are going to be terrible this season. Not a great way for a team to reintroduce itself to Los Angeles after spurning the city so many decades ago.

But if playing great football is an impossibility this season, there is one thing the Rams can do to make their return genuinely significant — and right a historical wrong in the process: They can finally honor Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, the men who desegregated football for the Rams 70 years ago in Los Angeles.

The story of the NFL’s desegregation isn’t well known. It hasn’t been built into the folklore of the sport like baseball. But it’s no less dramatic.

In 1934, in an effort to emulate major league baseball’s apartheid model of economic growth, the NFL’s owners came to a secret agreement to expel their smattering of black players and refuse to sign new ones.

The Rams’ return to L.A. doesn’t just have to be about mediocre football.

This clandestine policy of segregation was rigidly enforced for the next 12 years — greeted with a wink and a nod by much of America — until March 1946, when the L.A. Rams shattered this unspoken racist pact by signing African American Kenny Washington to their roster.

Washington, who played football for Lincoln High, was a local L.A. hero and one of the greatest running backs in UCLA — and arguably college — history. Yet the NFL never drafted him upon his graduation in 1939 because of its secret policy of segregation, much to the chagrin of proud Angelenos. Washington got a job as an LAPD officer, playing spectacular football on the side for the next several years in the tiny Pacific Coast Football League when he was able.

The NFL’s ban on Washington and other players of color would have stayed in place longer had it not been for the boldness of local government officials in Los Angeles, who cleverly forced the team’s hand when the then-Cleveland Rams smelled dollar signs on the West Coast. The Rams wanted to move their team across the country to play at the L.A. Coliseum. But because the stadium was publicly funded — owned by taxpayers black and white alike — local officials insisted the team had to integrate if the Rams were to play there.

To come to Los Angeles, the Rams would have to give fans the chance to finally see Washington on the field against the best.

The team acquiesced and signed an additional black player so that Washington would have someone to room with on the road. Washington insisted the job go to his old UCLA teammate Woody Strode.

At 28-years old and recovering from multiple knee surgeries, Washington was well past his prime. Yet he led the league in yards-per-carry his first NFL season, and to this day owns the Rams’ record for longest touchdown run for his 92-yard jaunt against the Chicago Cardinals.

And yet Washington’s accomplishments barely register a blip on the modern NFL’s historical radar. When he’s referred to at all, Washington is called football’s Jackie Robinson — even though he helped desegregate football a year before Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s racial barrier with the Dodgers.

The indignities Robinson had to endure while desegregating baseball have been ably documented in books and films like “42”: racist taunts and threats from the crowds, segregation on the road, open racial animus from opponents and teammates alike. Washington and Strode’s experience was just as brutal, if not more so. In a contact sport like football, opposing white players were able to take out their racial hostilities on the field — all to the delight of angry crowds, brimming with bloodlust.

It took another 16 years after Washington and Strode’s first season before every team in the league finally accepted black players.

“If I have to integrate heaven, I don’t want to go,” Strode famously said of his NFL experience.

Perhaps even worse, for all the suffering the pair endured — for all the impact they made on the American cultural landscape — they have never been properly recognized for their contribution.

Neither man is in the NFL Hall of Fame. Neither has had his numbers retired by the Rams. The NFL is now nearly three-quarters African American, and is arguably the greatest show in sports. Yet the Rams and the NFL have done almost nothing to highlight the incredible accomplishments of the brave men who paved the way for the league to grow to such heights.

“History doesn’t know who we are,” Strode said in 1971, as true now as it was then.

Amid the corporate shininess of modern professional sports, it’s easy to forget that the field of play has always been part of the fight for racial equality in America. Colin Kaepernick’s recent national anthem protests over racial inequality and police brutality of African Americans have met enraged criticism for being “the wrong place” and the “wrong time” to speak out.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher himself was dismissive of the protest: "[Kaepernick] has every right to do that, but we have an organizational philosophy that has been in place for a long time with respect to the anthem.”

Fisher’s position is one generally mirrored by the NFL and its executives and owners.

But sports have always been about more than wins, losses and sanctifying cultural norms. Though it may be more conservative than other sports, football is no exception.

If the Rams organization and the NFL aren’t willing to take a bold role in furthering the pursuit of racial equality in the present, the very least they can do is honor the actions of the past — and the brave men who did everything they could to make America a more equitable place.

The Rams’ return to L.A. doesn’t just have to be about mediocre football.

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