Saturday 24 February 2018

American Football: College kings defy unsavoury history

Eamonn Sweeney

Tomorrow night in New Orleans, the University of Alabama and Louisiana State University face off in the college football national title game, one of the great American sporting occasions.

I'm a great fan of college football, of its pageantry, its local ties, its tendency to produce high-scoring shoot-outs to an extent not generally matched in the more regimented world of the NFL. Its history not so much. For decades college football at the top level was an all-white game and planned to stay that way. In doing so it mirrored the wider society.

The University of Alabama was, after all, the place where one of the great set-pieces of the battle for civil rights in the South took place. On June 11, 1963, state governor, and prime racist asshole, George Wallace, stood at the door to try and prevent black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from registering. Federal marshals got them in past the bould George and they went on to complete their education.

Malone and Hood weren't the first black students to enrol at the University of Alabama. Seven years earlier, Autherine Lucy managed to do so but lasted three days before a dangerous mob forced her off campus and the university expelled her for good measure. Lovely people.

It took a further eight years after the enrolment of Malone and Hood before Alabama deemed it proper to admit the first black player to their college football team. The guy's name was John Mitchell and initially he was "reluctant to go to Alabama. I didn't know what kind of reception I'd get or whether I'd ever get to play ball there. I told my mother there would be too many problems."

His mother Helen had different ideas and told him, "Son, no matter where you go you'll always have problems. Come on down here to Alabama so your mother can see you play."

Tomorrow night when Alabama play LSU, another former segregationist stronghold which didn't have a black football player until 1973, the majority of players on both teams will be African American. As the George Wallaces of this world must have feared, the floodgates have opened.

John Mitchell went on to play in the NFL and tonight he'll be working as assistant head coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers as they massacre the Denver Broncos in the play-offs. Anyone feeling the temptation to get smug and superior about American racism should ponder the fact that American football, baseball and basketball abound with black managers and coaches, something you unfortunately can't say about soccer.

Tomorrow night's game will be the ultimate monument to the pioneering spirit of John Mitchell. And proof that you should always listen to your mother's advice. She must have been some lady.

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