"The NFL happens to be in a position to make great contributions — not only to the Negro cause, which admittedly not every owner might agree to, but to its own competitive and financial situation, which is important to every owner, as well as to the League itself. Little or nothing has ever been done in this realm by professional baseball, basketball, or boxing; football has the opportunity to make a real contribution."
That's quote from a 1966 memo written by Claude "Buddy" Young, a former pro football player who was working for the NFL as director of player relations. Titled "Some Observations on the NFL and Negro Players," the memo spelled out a series of policies the league would adopt 20 years later. The document also anticipates the context of ongoing controversy related to former 49ers' quarterback Colin Kaepernick's 2016 refusal to stand during the playing of the National Anthem.
Writes Paul Lukas at The Undefeated site:
With the civil rights movement leading to increased tensions throughout much of America at the time, the memo warns that "some incident, however slight (a Negro player whose militant stand on the [civil] rights issue being cut by one team, for example, strictly on the basis of his performance on the field) could spark a demonstration, large or small, or picketing by the more fiery extremist groups." It reads like a fortune-teller's vision of the Kaepernick controversy and the recent national anthem protests….
Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Malcolm Jenkins, one of the founders of the Players Coalition, which has been working with the league to address social issues and criminal justice reform, saw the parallels between 1966 and the Kaepernick situation.
"It was almost like a premonition," said Jenkins. "He could recognize that these players still have to go back to their communities and be black men in America, and at some point they might feel they needed to take a stand. Honestly, some of the things in the memo are almost verbatim some of the same things we've been talking about. But it's a good feeling to see that what we're doing is not something new, and that we've actually kind of picked up the baton from those who've gotten us this far."
Lukas notes that the memo was written when blacks made up about 25 percent of NFL players; they now account for 70 percent of team rosters. Young called for demographic representation in front offices, coaching, and training positions as well. Young also called for classes for rookies in things such as financial planning. In all, it's a remarkable document that showed how a business entity such as the NFL could treat players as individuals while also creating a system more comfortable with and accepting of racial diversity. As such, it's worth reading today.
The memo can be read below or at The Undefeated and is an incredible document, especially for its time. Young worked for the NFL until his death in a 1983 car accident; his number, 22, was the first retired by the Baltimore Colts franchise.
Related: Matt Welch's excellent 2005 article, "Locker-Room Liberty: Athletes Who Helped Shape Our Times and the Economic Freedom that Enabled Them." It's a look at how basketball's Oscar Robertson, baseball's Dick Allen, and football's Joe Namath insisted on keeping more of the money they were making for sports teams, leading to profound changes that went far beyond sports.