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Gentlemen's Agreement: A snapshot of Jim Crow and college football

In the course of researching and writing a book about the Georgia-Yale series of 1923-34, I discovered another forgotten series that seems equally unlikely today – Georgia and New York University.

You might be surprised to know NYU was a football blueblood, one of the first college teams of the 19th century, but they weren’t on par with Yale, Harvard and Princeton and haven’t fielded a team since 1953. NYU’s football legacy endures in the Heisman Trophy, a sculpture inspired by Violets running back Ed Smith and his famous stiff-arm technique.

Other than that, NYU is off the football map. But on November 9, 1929, the Violets served as an intriguing first-time opponent for Georgia during a decade when the Bulldogs expanded beyond a regional program and played football in different parts of the country. Georgia’s series with NYU ran consecutively from 1929 through 1933, and the Bulldogs and Violets played the final game on October 28, 1939. Both teams won three games in the series. Five of the games took place at Yankee Stadium or the Polo Grounds while the 1933 game was played at Sanford Stadium, a 25-0 Georgia victory.

Imagine riding the train from Athens to New York City, lodging at the Waldorf Astoria (as the team and traveling party did in ’29) and taking in everything New York City offered. When the teams met in November of ’29, only a couple of weeks had passed since the stock market crash that precipitated the Great Depression.

Economic turmoil wasn’t the only cloud hanging over the game. NYU’s star player was David Myers, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound guard who had been shifted to the backfield to utilize his leadership and speed. For Georgia, the problem was Myers was black. He grew up in New York City where he earned high academic marks and stood out on various fields at Stuyvesant High School. At NYU, he excelled on the football field and as a javelin thrower, setting a distance record at the prestigious Penn Relays in the spring of 1929.

David Myers, a photo published in the Baltimore Afro-American

Myers was pivotal in NYU’s 7-0 victory over Penn State a couple weeks before the Georgia game. This was the first game head coach Chick Meehan used Myers in the backfield, and he put on a show, offensively and defensively. Games against Butler and Georgetown followed, with Myers starring in both, to set up the battle at Yankee Stadium between Georgia and NYU.

Suddenly, controversy erupted.

Myers reportedly wouldn’t play against the Bulldogs. But why not? It was blatant discrimination, going by Meehan’s statement to the New York Times, which published this quote in an October 24, 1929 (Black Thursday) article: “We had no intention of playing Myers against Georgia when we scheduled the game, and we do not intend to play him now…We understood the feeling of Southern colleges in regard to playing against negroes, and I made up my mind then that Myers would remain out of the game. The name of Myers did not enter into the negotiations with Georgia.”

This was known as the “gentlemen’s agreement.” African Americans had been playing college football since its earliest days – William Henry Lewis at Harvard, Preston Eagleson at Indiana University, George Flippin at the University of Nebraska, Ed Harvey at the University of Kansas, Gideon Smith at Michigan Agricultural College (Michigan State) and many others highlighted in this ESPN piece.

But when it came to playing all-white Southern schools, the implication was that African Americans were prohibited, even if the game were played somewhere like New York City. This gentlemen’s agreement in college football became especially popular among segregationists in the 1920s as more African Americans started playing. October 1947 marked the first time a black college football player competed against whites on a Southern school’s playing field - Chester Pierce of Harvard against the University of Virginia. Of course, there was nothing easy about breaking that barrier.

Despite Meehan’s clear-cut explanation, an odd statement came from Professor Giles L. Courtney, chairman of the Board of Athletic Control at NYU (fancy name for athletic director, it seems). He corroborated Meehan’s claim that Myers’ name never came up during game negotiations, and Georgia never made any stipulations about playing against African Americans. In fact, Courtney said Myers would play against Georgia…if Myers was healthy enough.

As the story went, Myers injured his shoulder in the breakout Penn State game and aggravated it against Georgetown. Meehan held Myers out of practice the Monday leading up to the Georgia contest. However, nothing of Myers’ shoulder injury had been published prior to November 7.

This came from an Associated Press story printed in the Atlanta Constitution: “Myers himself said that he had informed a trainer during the Georgetown game last week that he suffered an injury to his shoulder. The trainer, it was said, failed to inform head coach Chick Meehan and Myers played the entire game.”

The NAACP said the decision was racially motivated and threatened to sue both schools if Myers didn’t play. The Baltimore Afro-American reported the treatment of Myers “has brought a demand from writers and fans that the game should be canceled if Myers does not play.” The newspaper claimed NYU leaders secretly agreed to bar Myers from the Georgia game for his skin color while publicly stating it was due to an injury.

“If a New York City university allows the Mason-Dixon line to be erected in the center of its playing field, then that New York City university should disband its football team for all time,” the paper stated.

The contradictory comments from NYU make it sound like collusion. Courtney’s “he’ll play…if he’s healthy” statement seems an attempt to absolve NYU of any responsibility in keeping Myers from playing Georgia because of his skin color.

Georgia athletic director Dr. Steadman V. Sanford told an AP reporter as he was en route to New York, “The University of Georgia has never made any demands on New York University, being confident that the institution would handle the affairs of this game in a manner satisfactory to itself and its invited guests.”

The controversy wasn’t going away.

“In an effort to combat the avalanche of criticism that descended upon it,” as the Associated Press wrote, NYU called for a panel of three doctors to evaluate Myers.

On November 9, 1929, the New York Times reported that Myers wouldn’t play in the Georgia game:

“Myers was examined by a committee of surgeons composed of Dr. George David Stewart, past president of the American College of Surgeons; Dr. Edward A. King of St. Vincent’s Hospital and Dr. Michael Tetelman of the French Hospital and pronounced unfit for duty, not only for the Georgia game but possible the remainder of the season…Their finding was that Myers has damaged the acromioclavicular ligaments of his left shoulder and that there is danger of permanent injury.”

The Atlanta Constitution’s game report leaned on the physicians’ report as suitable evidence that injury, not bias, ultimately sidelined Myers, whom they referred to as “the n––“ on first reference and then “Dave Myers, unwilling storm center of a foul tabloid newspaper campaign calculated to fan race prejudice…”

“Now no man can play football if his acromioclavicular ligament is injured,” the story continued. “Neither could a football coach or a physician invent such a terrible injury even to meet such a delicate emergency. Thus was the smoke blown away from the pre-game atmosphere.”

Without Myers, NYU defeated Georgia at Yankee Stadium, 27-19.

What was the true extent of Myers’ AC injury? The panel of physicians feared “permanent injury,” which might lead a person to believe Myers would need at least a few weeks to rest, possibly the remainder of the 1929 season.

Instead, Myers was back out against Rutgers two weeks later on November 24, starting at right halfback and picking up yardage in huge chunks. The University of Missouri visited New York after Georgia, and the Tigers would’ve had the same attitude about allowing Myers on the field. In fact, the gentlemen’s agreement caused an uproar in the 1940s at NYU involving a game against Missouri. (This section of the book “Sport and the Color Line” explains more.)

NYU barred Myers from the field to placate Georgia. Meehan’s statements are clear, and everything said thereafter was a matter of NYU trying to save face and UGA distancing itself from the situation. The deal hinged on an implied understanding. Seeing NYU turn its back must have been a stinging blow for Myers.

After his NYU career, Myers became one of the first black players in the National Football League, logging 13 career games with the Staten Island Stapletons in 1930 and the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1931. He earned second team All-Pro honors from UPI voters in ’31. When the Dodgers played the Chicago Cardinals in 1931, the game featured the NFL’s only two African Americans – Myers and Duke Slater, a highly decorated tackle for Chicago. (For more about Duke Slater, see Neal Rozendaal’s fine biography.)

Myers left the NFL in 1931 and the league banned black players starting in 1934, a rule that was in effect until 1945.

I first learned of Myers after a local newspaper referenced an appearance he made at Muzzy Field in Bristol, Connecticut, in 1938 with the semi-pro Colonial Brown Bombers. Myers also played on other semi-pro teams during the 1930s.

He died in 1997 at age 90 in Houlton, Maine, a Canadian border town once booming in agriculture, forestry and railroads. What brought him to southern Aroostook County in Maine? What was life like for him? When the Brooklyn Baseball Dodgers fielded an integrated team in the mid-1940s, they sought a community with a significant French-Canadian population (Nashua, New Hampshire) because owner Branch Rickey believed his black players would be welcomed. Was Myers treated more fairly in his neck of the Maine woods than in other parts of the northeast?

I haven’t found enough information about Myers’ life to satisfy my curiosity.

 
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