Review by Budd Bailey
Sometimes advances in civil rights in the United States have come along so slowly that it’s like waiting for a glacier to recede. At other times, the changes that come in succession leave us almost breathless.
If there’s a theme to Erin Grayson Sapp’s book, “Breaking the Chains,” that might be it. What’s more, it’s one of those books that seems to be all about football, but is upon reading about a lot more than that.
The bowl games have been part of the college landscape for more than a century in some cases. They were originally designed to lure tourists from the North to come to warmer climates for the holidays. That worked rather well for several years, as the Sugar Bowl (New Orleans), Rose Bowl (Southern California), Cotton Bowl (Dallas), and Orange Bowl (Miami) became part of the annual sports schedule on New Year’s Day.
But by the 1950s, a problem had started to develop in some of those cities. African Americans had started to become a big part of college football outside of the South, but they weren’t particularly welcome in New Orleans at that time. Even the seating for the massive Sugar Bowl was segregated by race. Soon the New Year’s Day game’s board was starting to have trouble finding teams from anywhere but the South willing to come to New Orleans. Even if integrated teams did arrive to Louisiana, they were faced with rules that kept them out of such places as hotels, restaurants and nightclubs.
So how did we get from that point to the awarding of a National Football League franchise in 1967 to New Orleans? That’s Sapp’s story, and it’s a good one.
The story behind all of it is, naturally, money. Segregation was cutting into tourism dollars in New Orleans, as large conventions such as the American Legion’s were moved elsewhere because the Louisiana city wasn’t open to all. Its old ways were leaving New Orleans isolated.
It took some federal legislation to move the ball down the field – or if you prefer, to move the chains. Discrimination nationwide was outlawed in many fields, including voting, housing and transportation. President Lyndon Johnson gets the credit for a lot of that. Still, it took some time to change hearts and minds in such matters. A flashpoint came in January, 1965, when the American Football League scheduled its All-Star Game for New Orleans in an attempt to judge its interest in pro football as see if it could be a site for expansion down the road.
That turned out to be, quite simply, a disaster. Several African Americans were the subject of discrimination and racial taunts. It took them little time to decide that they didn’t want to play in a city that was so unwelcoming, and started a boycott. Jack Kemp of the Buffalo Bills, a union leader, backed those efforts. The game was moved to Houston, and that served as a national black eye for New Orleans.
Louisiana figured out it needed to speed up change, and it did. Soon skin color didn’t matter when it came to riding in a taxi. Football became a relatively small but very visible public part of that effort. In the football sense, the movement received a boost, when the NFL and AFL announced a merger in 1966. But in order to get that through Congress, the football leaders needed help. By chance, two key figures in Congress were from Louisiana, and the price tag for an assist in getting the merger approved was a franchise. Deal. The team began play in the NFL in 1967.
Admittedly, these are subjects that can be pretty dry – especially to sports fans. There are plenty of politicians, committee members and business owners who are part of the story. It’s a pretty big cast of characters, and it can be difficult to sort them all out. There aren’t many people here that sports fans will recognize, and they play a minor part in it all. That is going to make the book slow going for the football fans who pick this up in the first place.
But it’s necessary, and the pace picked up nicely in other times. Sapp in particular does a fine job of explaining just what happened to the AFL All-Stars; the boycott comes off as a completely rational act under the circumstances.
“Moving the Chains” is published by the LSU Press, and it naturally feels like the sort of weighty history book that such a company would publish. (In other words, lots of footnotes.) Naturally, you aren’t going to see this sold in many bookstores located outside the Saints’ television coverage area. But if you have an interest in the subjects involved in the story, the book will supply plenty of information. In other words, you’ll learn something – and that’s always good.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)