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50 Years ago the American Football League Proved That Competition is the Enemy of Racism

By J. Edward Nelson
Marlin Briscoe became the first full time African-American starting quarterback in professional football for the AFL's Denver Broncos

Marlin Briscoe became the first full time African-American starting quarterback in professional football for the AFL's Denver Broncos


I watched the first two episodes of the five part series, “Full Color Football: The History of the American Football League,” the other night on the NFL Network – it originally aired on Showtime in September 2009 – and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the intense competition between the more established National Football League (NFL) and the upstart American Football League (AFL), which began when the AFL debuted in 1960, resulted in a substantial increase in the amount of African-American players within the ranks of professional football.

The AFL could not afford to have a “racist bone in its body.” Not because its owners were more altruistic than their NFL counterparts, but because they needed the best football players that they could get their hands on in order to compete for fans, most of which had grown up rooting for the rival NFL “brand” of professional football, in addition to attracting necessary television exposure and revenues.

The first full time African-American football scout was hired by an AFL team. The first African-American number one overall selection was drafted by an AFL team. The first African-American and Hispanic-American starting quarterbacks in professional football played in the AFL. AFL teams developed a pipeline into historically Black colleges and universities, signing players from schools such as Grambling, Southern and Prairie View.

The AFL wasn’t the first to do it, but they did it extensively,” said Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films.

As a result, AFL teams had as many as 10 – 15 African-American players on their rosters compared to NFL franchises which would have “two or four,” many believed, as the result of “unspoken quotas.”

Black players routinely received lower contracts than White players in the NFL, while in the AFL there was no such distinction based on race. The AFL also allowed integrated rooming assignments during training camp which the NFL prohibited.

The good thing about competition within a market-based industry is that the “cream” inevitably rises to the top. Not because business owners are “nice” guys and gals (although some certainly are), but because it is in their own self-interest to identify, hire and retain the most talented employees. “It’s a powerful business story,” said Ken Hershman, Showtime sports senior vice president.

When accompanied by competition, “self-interest” can be a beautiful thing in the business world. Just ask Black professional football players who were given the opportunity to play and excel in the American Football League.

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