In the Game pp 169-189 | Cite as

Backfield in Motion

The Transformation of the NFL by Black Culture
  • Joel Dinerstein


Nearly every aspect of our national pastimes has been transformed by African American participation and protest, style and aesthetics, physical gesture and emotional expression—a social fact suggesting that African Americans create permanent changes in American sports once they attain a certain critical mass. African Americans constitute more than 80 percent of NBA players and 65 percent in the NFL. That basketball is deeply embedded in black culture is common knowledge: the sport’s transformative elements over the last forty years—the jump shot, slam-dunk, fast break offense, and defiant self-expression—make pre-1965 b-ball, with its running hook-shots and two-handed set-shots, look like a diagrammed pickup game. But football was equally transformed by black culture in the 1970s in aesthetic, athletic, expressive, and performative ways, yet this is an untold story that remains a sideline to the AFL-NFL merger and the rise of Monday Night Football. In fact, the sport seems embarrassed by the changes: How else to assess the “illegal celebration” penalty of the 1980s except as the illegal use of black culture? As historian Alan H. Levy notes in Tackling Jim Crow, “Many head coaches of the 1970s (and all were white) sought to clamp down on it [black culture],” since they were “unduly threatened by matters of identifiably and self-consciously black behavior that lay outside their ken and control.”1


Football Player Basketball Player Professional Football Head Coach College Football 
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    Alan H. Levy, Tackling Jim Crow: Racial Segregation in Professional Football (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003), 154.Google Scholar
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    Michael MacCambridge, America’s Game (New York: Random House, 2004), 107–110, 164–167, 201–203; Bob Costas quoted in Larry Swartz, “Biography—Jim Brown,” Brown was equally outspoken off the field, as when challenging the racism, segregation, and double standards of the Cleveland Browns as a corporate organization in 1960: “If they don’t invite us to the parties and events with the pretty white girls, then we won’t go to those community functions, that boring, political shit, where they want to make us look like one happy family. If we can’t go to … the fun stuff, then we won’t do the fake stuff.” Brown quoted in Mac-Cambridge, America’s Game, 202. Many thanks to Clark Dougan for his recollections of Jim Brown and for suggesting this line of argument.Google Scholar
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© Amy Bass 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joel Dinerstein

There are no affiliations available

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