The world change with the unwarranted murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers.

Since that moment, the world’s focus shifted from sheltering to fend off COVID-19 to one of outward activism to fend off racism. There are continuous protests, marches, and other incredible happenings around the world. Call it a sea-change for change.

“Reflection” has been the main word for many throughout this week. Why is this still happening after all the history of this country? The United States of America was built on the very diversity of its people. And yet, it seems that the same diversity of our population is the leading culprit that challenges us today. Racial injustice is not a new issue by any means. In fact, it’s as old as America itself. Thus, 244 years later, we are still working to build on the strides we have made over the centuries. Sports has helped make those strides. Let’s take a look at the NFL and the New York Giants in particular.

Breaking Barriers

From 1932 to 1946, the NFL owners refused to let black players into the league. This was despite colleges allowing all races to play the college game. This was despite some of these student-athletes of color being named as College All-Americans. This was despite all ten teams of the NFL drafting up to 20 players each year. In 1946, the color barrier was broken when Kenny Washington signed on with the new Los Angeles Rams—just moved from Cleveland—to play running back.

It took pressure from the LA stadium commission and local black newspapers to force integration on the NFL.

How many of you know that Kenny Washington also played college baseball?

How many of you know that Kenny Washington was a teammate of Jackie Robinson on the UCLA football and baseball teams?

How many of you know that the NFL broke the color barrier one year before Major League Baseball?

“I was the first black everything for the New York Giants”—Emlen Tunnell, Safety

Emlen Lewis Tunnell

Emlen Lewis Tunnell was the first African American to play football for the New York Football Giants, playing for the team from 1948 to 1959.

In the Summer of 1948, Tunnell hitch-hiked from Pennsylvania to New York, walked into the Giants’ offices and requested a tryout.

The Giants were already familiar with Emlen’s eye-catching, two-way play from his days at Toledo, then Iowa Universities. The team gave him a tryout and signed him. Tunnell started his Giants career as a two-way player. But, after a few games, the Giants made the decision to have him focus on defense. Coach Jim Lee Howell ended up developing a new “Umbrella” defense with Tunnell as the safety and key cog of that defense. In 1952, he nearly became a 1,000-yard player…solely on defense and special teams.

Tunnell finished his career with the Green Bay Packers. His last game in 1961 was the NFL Championship game against the Giants where Emlen helped the Packers to a 37-0 defeat of the Giants. To this day, Emlen Tunnell still ranks as the player with the second-most interceptions in a career with 79. That’s just under six interceptions each year for his 14-year career.

In the era of civil rights marches and moves toward integration, Emlen Tunnell was known to like everybody. Garrett Hill, PA was Tunnell’s hometown. He described it as a town where everybody just lived together, got along, and knew everyone by name.

When his playing career ended, Emlen was a scout for both the Packers and the Giants. He returned to the Giants full time in 1963 as part of the team’s scouting staff. In 1965, Tunnell was promoted to the coaching staff and became the NFL’s first full-time African American coach. To wrap up an illustrious career, Emlen Tunnell became the first African American football player to be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame–that honor coming in 1967. Emlen worked with the Giants as their Assistant Director of Pro Personnel until his sudden death from a heart attack in 1975.

Some Progress

Since the integration of the NFL and MLB, African American players have been viewed as equals on the field of play. Yes, it took the time, patience, and persistence of those players to overcome the prejudice of fellow players and fans. It took the bravery of players of all color to put an end to separate buses, hotels, and restaurants that still were commonplace in the 50s and 60s, dividing a team off the field. In those same decades, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up for the rights of African Americans and brought national attention to the inequalities that they faced on a daily basis regarding most things such as jobs, housing, transportation, and just general decency.

Over the years, there have been multiple instances which led to pro football players speaking out, or in some way, bringing attention to civil injustice, law enforcement reform, and racism. Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem has clearly been a controversial matter that the NFL has struggled to resolve. “Black Lives Matter” is not a new movement. in 2016, Michael Strahan shared his thoughts regarding “Black Lives Matters” and what he teaches his children.

A Long Way to Go

So, here we are as a country–74 years after the integration of the NFL, 53 years after the first African American player was elected into the Hall of Fame–still struggling to achieve true equality and diversity. The NFL has an opportunity to be a driving force for continued change that will bring us closer to true equality and diversity. Several players and executives have spoken out on personal instances where just the color of their skin led to them being approached/stopped by law enforcement.

On June 5th, Michael Strahan again shared his thoughts on being black and relayed an instance of his own. It was reported that the Giants ownership, coaching staff and players have met online as a full team twice this past week to discuss the current movement and share insights.

Many in the NFL are only now waking up to this movement. Several players have put out joint messages regarding the need for change and that “Black Lives Matter”. This video was made by the players to bring the NFL “center stage” to build momentum toward change.

At this very moment, the people of the world are speaking and acting and demanding change as a much larger, unified, non-partisan group.

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