In 1920, Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard became one of the first two African-American players in the football league which would become the NFL. One year later, in 1921, Pollard became the first African-American head coach in NFL history.
By 1933, however, no African-American players remained in the league. The eradication of African-American players from the league is attributed to numerous factors, including the overt racism of the owner of the Boston Braves (which would become the Washington Redskins), as well as a tumbling economy caused by the Great Depression.
Thirteen years after African-Americans were removed from team rosters, a move by the then Cleveland Rams to Los Angeles forced the reintegration of African-American players into the league.
The Rams desired to play at the Los Angeles Coliseum. However, recognizing that the Coliseum was paid for using public funds, the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission informed the Rams that if they wanted to lease the Coliseum, they must have at least one African-American player on their roster, to comply with applicable law. Thereafter, the Rams signed UCLA football standout Kenny Washington to a contract in 1946, thereby securing their move to Los Angeles and a lease with the Coliseum.
In 1936, three years after the NFL was re-segregated and ten years before an African-American player would set foot on an NFL playing field again, John Wooten was born in Riverview, Texas.
The sixth and last child born to his parents, Wooten’s destiny would become that of ensuring that African-Americans were given the opportunity to pursue positions in the NFL of which they were deserving. While the Cleveland Rams left Ohio to move to Los Angeles and subsequently reintegrate the NFL, the other team in Cleveland–the Browns–drafted Wooten out of college. In 1967-68, Wooten would finish his NFL playing career with the Washington Redskins. This was the same Washington Redskins team whose owner, George Preston Marshall, is largely recognized for re-segregating the NFL, due to his stark opposition to signing African-American players.
As the sixth child born to his family, Wooten grew up in a low-economic environment. He credits the help others gave him for his success in becoming an NFL player, and later a member of the front offices of the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, Baltimore Ravens and the NFL itself.
“All of my life, someone has helped me and done something for me to help me proceed or go further. Whether it was job opportunities or something, someone was always there to help me. I came from a low-economic family. I was the youngest of six, so someone always helped me,” said Wooten.
Cognizant of the great opportunities he had received through the help of others, along with his own talent and drive, Wooten was aware that he could help other minorities gain hold of similar opportunities. In his time working with the Cowboys, Eagles and Ravens, he witnessed several programs which assisted minorities in becoming NFL coaches, including the Black Coaches Visitation Program. The Black Coaches Visitation Program was instituted by former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozell, and granted African-American coaches the opportunity to visit and participate in NFL training camps.
“One of the things that we were always doing while working in the front office with the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens, was trying to open up avenues where more minorities would get the opportunity to coach or work in the front office for teams,” said Wooten.
While Wooten notes the progress made by the Black Coaches Visitation Program and other efforts, he is quick to note that real movement in the effort to promote diversity amongst the NFL hiring process was only made beginning in 2002.
In 2002, famed trial lawyer Johnnie Cochran and attorney Cyrus Mehri commissioned University of Pennsylvania economics professor Dr. Janice Madden to complete a study related to the number of African-American coaches in the NFL. The final product, “Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities,” showed that only six of the 139 head coaching opportunities in the NFL from 1986 to 2001 had gone to African-Americans.
Citing the study, Cochran announced in 2002 that it was he and Mehri’s desire to avoid litigation, yet promote conversation as to the disparaging number of African-American coaches in the NFL.
Wooten heard Cochran’s call to action and was ready to lend his support to the cause.
“When this happened, I saw it as a godsend. This is what we needed: the legal side of it; men who understood the law,” said Wooten.
Previously familiar with Cochran from attending the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans and hearing Cochran speak there on the “Brother to Brother” panel, Wooten called Mehri’s office and said that if he and Cochran were serious about the cause they were promoting, that the group should meet at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis and put a plan together.
While at the Combine, the group of men presented their ideas and research to minority coaches and scouts. Later, they would meet with NFL representatives to create a plan of action for promoting the hiring of minority coaches and NFL front office executives. Their work would lead to then-NFL Commissioner Paul Taligabue forming an NFL diversity committee.
In 2003, the efforts of Cochran, Mehri, Wooten and the NFL culminated in the Rooney Rule. Named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner, Dan Rooney, who has been long recognized for his efforts in promoting diversity, the rule requires NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for every head coaching and senior football operation position they have open.
Today, Wooten serves as the Chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance. Named after the first African-American NFL head coach, the Fritz Pollard Alliance exists to “promot[e] diversity and equality of job opportunity in the coaching, front office and scouting staffs of National Football League (“NFL”) teams. . .”
Wooten says that the success of the Rooney Rule has been “outstanding.” Amongst other advances of the role of minorities in the NFL, Wooten notes that in this year’s NFL playoffs, of the twelve teams, eight had minority head coaches and/or front office executives. Of the final four teams remaining in the playoffs, two (New York and Baltimore) have minority general managers.
The Fritz Pollard Alliance’s slogan is, “We drink from wells we did not dig.”
Throughout his life, Wooten has credited the help others provided him for his success. Today, Wooten is lending his strength to dig new wells from which men and women seeking careers in the NFL will benefit from for coming years.