Although Jackie Robinson famously broke baseball’s color barrier in the 1940s, segregation in college football lingered another quarter-century — a sobering fact detailed in this crisp HBO documentary, which culminates with the oft-told story about how USC running back Sam “Bam” Cunningham singlehandedly integrated the U. of Alabama by running wild through its defense. Given the prominent role African-American athletes will play during a college bowl season that now seemingly endures from shortly after Thanksgiving through January, it’s another timely and sobering reminder of how far America has come in less than two generations.
The hour begins by mentioning how Alabama contemplated boycotting the Liberty Bowl rather than face an integrated Penn St. team, and ends with the Crimson Tide being pummeled by already-integrated USC in 1970 — a game that not only elated Alabama’s black population but perhaps even legendary Coach Bear Bryant, who wanted to demonstrate to the school’s alumni that segregation was no longer an option. Then again, the lesson was hardly altruistic.
“As long as they were winning with white players they were gonna stick with white players,” says Percy Jones, an Alabama student activist in the 1960s.
For older football fans, the names that flash by will certainly resonate, such as later NFL stars Willie Lanier and Bubba Smith — the latter forced to attend Michigan St. because universities in his native Texas wouldn’t recruit him. (Even at MSU, Smith recalls being told by coaches not to date white girls.)
Yet those players represent a small part of the memorable and more obscure stories touched upon, including Darryl Hill, a Maryland star subjected to derisive taunts before a crowd of “50,000 drunk Southern gentlemen” at Clemson.
Perhaps the most notable theme to emerge from “Breaking the Huddle” is that racial progress generally had less to do with a noble embrace of the civil-rights movement than sheer pragmatism, as coaches gradually realized they needed black players to effectively compete. Rare were those such as former SMU coach Hayden Fry, who cited his personal distaste for segregation as an incentive when he championed bringing African-Americans into the Southwest Conference.
Producer Joe Lavine and writer William C. Rhoden (the New York Times sports columnist) cram considerable info into this hour, which easily could have been twice as long. As is, it’s another demonstration of HBO’s elevated approach when it comes to exploring the integration of sports and society.