St. Louis Students Enjoy History Lesson on African Americans in Professional Football

Posted Mar 14, 2012

“Leave the game better than you found it.” Those were the words that NFL Hall of Famer and Rams defensive end Deacon Jones blurted from the screen as close to 600 middle and high school student-athletes recently watched Third and Long: A History of African Americans in Professional Football at the Edward Jones corporate offices.

In honor of Black History month, the St. Louis Rams partnered with the Diversity Awareness Partnership to bring the local students to screen the first installment of the two part series that explores the contributions, struggles and triumphs of African Americans in professional football.

The Rams played a significant role in the history documented in Third and Long as they were the first team to re-integrate the league with the signing of Kenny Washington in 1946 ─ one year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. 

The students in attendance watched as the film covered from 1946 to the 1960s, starting with the re-integration of the league in 1946 after a hands-off policy in 1933 banned African Americans from playing professional football for 13 years. Throughout the documentary, the early days of integration of African Americans into professional football played out on the screen against a backdrop of significant periods in history such as World War II, Jim Crow and the Watts Riots, painting the story of how the modern game was shaped.

After the film, a panel consisting of Rams kicker, Josh Brown; Rams wide receiver, Mark Clayton; former Rams defensive back, Aeneas Williams; Rams Senior Director of Communication, Artis Twyman and community leader and owner of The City Studio Dance Center, Sara Burke discussed the unique history as well as issues that still affect the NFL, amateur sports and the St. Louis community. 

The hour long panel discussion, which included questions from students in the audience, was honest and thought provoking. Each panelist shared their own personal experiences and thoughts on diversity and discrimination. They opened up about how diversity issues have played a part in their life and continue to play a role in their current jobs. 

Among the topics discussed was the unique environment within an NFL team where differences among people are thrown aside to accomplish one goal: to win. The panelists discussed how this single-goal orientation breeds opportunities to form relationships with people different than you. The panelists encouraged the students to take this same philosophy and apply it to their lives.

“You would be amazed at what you can learn from people you never thought you’d cross paths with or be sitting at lunch with,” said Clayton. “In our generation, the opportunity is certainly there.”

By the end of the discussion, the panel had expressed to students four concepts and action items to take with them: find a mentor, strive to learn as much as you can, respect others and remember one’s difference is their greatest value.

The students in the room were not the only ones that benefitted from the activities of the day. The panel was equally impacted by Third and Long and the ensuing discussion.

“It was an honor to be able to give my perspective because I have had such a diverse life in the neighborhoods I was raised and also in sports and how sports changed my viewpoint of diversity,” said Brown. “So to be able to be on this panel and be able to give my point of view was an honor, it was a privilege.”

“Given our unique history in the area of diversity, we knew there was a tremendous opportunity to share an important history lesson with today’s youth,” said Molly Higgins, vice president of corporate communications/civic affairs, St. Louis Rams.  “Third and Long did a great job of telling the story from an interesting historical perspective and the panelists did a phenomenal job adding a unique present day perspective to the discussion. I hope this will become an annual event with the Diversity Awareness Partnership.”

The Diversity Awareness Partnership (DAP) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to promoting diversity in the St. Louis region around issues of race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity. DAP achieves its mission through youth programs, diversity training, community forums and diversity publications. Since its inception in 2001, the DAP has been recognized for its collaborative efforts with St. Louis entities including Edward Jones, St. Louis Rams, St. Louis Cardinals, St. Louis Blues and area middle and high schools to develop more diverse and inclusive working, learning, and living environments.