A sports historian said a Normal native's nomination to the Pro Football Hall of Fame nearly a century after he helped break the NFL's color barrier shows the league hasn't fully reckoned with the racism that's plagued it for generations.
The NFL recently named Duke Slater to its centennial Hall of Fame class. Slater was the league's first black lineman.
Slater played for the Milwaukee Badgers, Rock Island Independents and Chicago Cardinals (currently the Arizona Cardinals) during 10 NFL seasons from 1922 to 1931 after a standout career at the University of Iowa where he was named an All-American. He was named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.
Chicago-based author Jack Silverstein said on WGLT's Sound Ideas that Slater was one of only a handful of black players in the NFL in the 1920s and 30s before the league banned them for over a decade.
“I think it’s a shame that the racism of the day marginalized these players and maybe pushed them away, not just in ways that we think of, the day-to-day indignities and cruelty that they had to face on the field, but restricting ownership opportunities,” Silverstein said.
Slater also played football without a helmet. As the story goes, his high school in Clinton, Iowa, could only afford to give players either a helmet or shoes. He chose shoes.
In the final years of his football playing career, Slater got his law degree and became an attorney. He later became Cook County superior court’s first black judge. He died in 1966 at age 67.
Silverstein said the NFL still struggles with diversity in coaching and ownership.
“These things have been passed down through generations,” he said. “I think if you look at the total history of the NFL, and we’ve been encouraged to do that because of this centennial celebration, you see the ways in which the issues of the past and really still the issues of the present.”
The NFL has only two minority owners and three black head coaches, while 70% of its players are black.
The Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals are four franchises still owned by the same families that date back to the league’s unofficial ban against black players that ran from 1934 to 1946.
Slater is one of 15 members of the 2020 Hall of Fame class, including 10 from the league’s senior committee, which votes on the candidacies of those who have been on the ballot for 25 years.
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