Jackie Robinson Crosses the Thin Red Ribbon Week Line

As a multisport star at UCLA, signing with the local Los Angeles Bulldogs was part of open trend of signing African-American players long before the National Football League was convinced to do so.

This is the part where I play the hypocrite about things I find hypocritical.

Time for a confession:  while some consider Red Ribbon Week a black and white issue, I’ve already shared how I feel it’s more of a gray one.

I made myself a promise to lie low during Red Ribbon Week and try not to openly participate in the “events” planned for the week.  That way I didn’t have to get into a longish explanation for my reticence about the entire concept in general (and in particular).  The events were meant to be entirely voluntary, and to that end, I wore blue to school yesterday.  (Being a Cal grad and wearing red is also a consideration—it ain’t done!)  But today, given the Sports Day theme, I was in a quandary.

It’s always interesting to watch students dress for Sports Day.   While a number of kids wear their jersey for their local youth league teams, it is always fascinating to see the number of Ben Roethlisberger Steeler replica jerseys (not so many this year, if at all), or, given the local angle, Kobe Bryant.   My favorite today, given that it’s Red Ribbon Week and all, are the kids wearing their Manny Ramirez Dodger shirts.

Therein lies the mighty contradiction of today:  Sports might keep you away from drugs, but staying away from it doesn’t necessarily lead someone to make good choices.  And, truth be told, going through my closet last night, I debated just wearing a dress shirt and tie. I truly did not want to wear a jersey, specifically because it seemed like such an empty gesture.  But as I was searching for something, I found it.  It was my throwback Jackie Robinson Los Angeles Bulldogs’ jersey.  Now it made sense.  There was a story to be told.

The Los Angeles Bulldogs were the first of Los Angeles’ professional football teams. Created in 1936, with the hope of joining the National Football League the following season, the Bulldogs lost out on joining the league to the Cleveland Rams (who themselves would eventually move to Los Angeles after the end of the Second World War). Robinson played only briefly for the Bulldogs, who, as a part of what is known as the second American Football League (AFL), were also the first professional football franchise, in 1937, to finish a league season undefeated.  The team itself existed in various forms either independently, in the AFL, the American Professional Football League, and, finally, the Pacific Coast Professional Football League.  This latter group was the first organized league to bring pro football to the West Coast of the United States.  In addition, unlike the National Football League, which barred African American players from participating, the PCPFL, allowed African Americans to play.  As a result, Robinson, along with fellow UCLA alumni such as Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, was as much a pioneer in professional football as he would later become in Major League Baseball.  Even more stunning, is the reality that when the Rams finally moved from Cleveland to play in the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, the Coliseum Commission stipulated that only an integrated team would be allowed to play in the stadium, and, just like that, the NFL’s restrictions on African-Americans was lifted.

Ultimately, my love of history trumps the need for ideological consistency. This is the story that I tell my students this morning.  I think my students need to hear it. Several have heard of Jackie Robinson’s name but others have no real knowledge of what he means, not just to me, as a personal hero, but to American popular history as a whole.  I already have plans on introducing him even further to the students a bit later on in the year.  In addition, having been a former 4th grade teacher, I know it’s also a story I would have told these kids had they been mine in a 4th grade class.

So as I type in this entry, I feel like a hypocrite.  But I also, I feel, seized upon a teachable moment in the tunnel vision of Red Ribbon Week.  For that, I think I’ve earned myself a tall cold one.

Cheers!

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