Vince Lombardi Championed Equality on and off Football Field

The 1960s Packers have set the standard for many reasons. Read quotes from Dave Robinson, Willie Davis, Bill Curry, and Jerry Kramer about Lombardi and how he advocated for equality before the rest of the NFL.

With everything going on in the world, I wanted to do something different today. Vince Lombardi is adored and cherished by all Packers fans. It’s in the makeup of a person’s green and gold DNA. So it’s important to recognize that Lombardi was an advocate for racial equality in his locker room, in team hotels, and on the football field. 

Since there’s already a lot of rich content that exists on the subject, I want to shine a spotlight on these existing pieces and compile some snippets from articles that tell great stories, along with player quotes that help paint the picture of Lombardi as a football coach and man. Below each snippet will be a link to the full article or video if you’re interested. I'd encourage you to read each article and watch each video, as it's all excellent. 

“His greatest Packer teams depended on full integration. When he came to Green Bay as an assistant coach from the New York Giants, the Packers had only one black player: Nate Borden. Lombardi understood that he could not construct a championship team by ignoring black athletes. As head coach and general manager, he drafted and recruited some of the greatest black players in the league. By 1967, the Packers fielded a squad with 13 black athletes, including All-Pros Willie Davis, Willie Wood, Dave Robinson, Herb Adderley, and Bob Jeter.

But Lombardi did not simply play black athletes. He treated them the same as his white players, even when disciplining them. “It never enters my mind that I’m being chewed out because I’m a Negro,” Dave Robinson said. “The important thing is everybody gets equal treatment.” Traditionally, head coaches assigned hotel rooms based on race. Lombardi, however, made sure that room assignments were not made on the basis of skin color. In 1967, Harry Edwards reported, the Packers were the only NFL team with such a policy.

Looking back, Vince Lombardi’s treatment of black players helped forge the Packers’ reputation as the most democratic team in the NFL. Although we can’t be certain how he would respond to players kneeling during the anthem, what we do know is that if something mattered to his players then it mattered to him too. An advocate for social justice, Lombardi listened to his men, believing that their voices needed to be heard when it came to racial equality. For Lombardi recognized the humanity of every man on his team. “If you’re black or white, you’re part of the family,” he explained in 1968. “We respect every man’s dignity black or white.”

Regardless of a player’s race, background, or political views, he said, a team stood as one. His message resonated on Thursday night when Aaron Rodgers and his teammates locked arms in a demonstration of “love over hate and unity over division.” Football, Lombardi believed, had the power to enlighten, to bring together black men and white men. “If you’re going to play together as a team,” he said, “you’ve got to care for one another. You’ve got to love each other.”

Love over hate. That was Vince Lombardi.”

     - “Vince Lombardi Would Be Proud” by Slate

“There were four of us black players, which was more than several other teams in the league had in their organization.

I would say that nobody had more impact in creating diversity in the NFL than Coach Lombardi. It was partly because he took a new approach, almost playing ignorant to any kind of racial tension in the league. He didn't buy into debates or arguments about his drafting, trading (or in the case of Willie Wood) letting black players walk on. Right from the start, he treated us as equals, just players competing for a spot on the team. He chose not to see color in an era where most chose to look the other way in terms of blacks. It was as if he felt the best way to fix the problem of segregation and racism in the league was to actually pretend it didn't exist -- at least to us.”

     - Excerpt from Willie Davis’ book Closing the Gap from The Post Game

“I didn’t realize at the time that I was going to be the first black linebacker in the National Football League, but Vince did, and he took it very seriously. He called me inside and told me. He said we’re not going to publicize it, if anybody says anything to you, refer them to me, but he said he didn’t want any distractions on the team. But he knew what it meant. And I, at the time, all I wanted to do was play football, get a check to support my family. I didn’t realize what the social implications were. Vince Lombardi always had a grasp on that, and he made sure that I acted in a way that he felt was appropriate. Not how I thought was appropriate, how Vince thought was appropriate. He was quite a leader.”

     - Dave Robinson from video: Former Packers player Dave Robinson by Green Bay Press Gazette 

“My biggest problem was I had never been in the huddle with an African-American person. There were teams in the league that had quotas, or they had no African-American players, and they bragged about it. In the Packers’ training camp, if you said one racist sentence, you were cut immediately. That was the talk in the locker room. On a 40-man roster we had 10 African-American players, and [Lombardi] would have had 40 because he didn’t care about the color of your skin. He cared a lot if you could play football, and he cared a lot if you were a good human being. He had a gift for selecting all of the above and blending all of those various qualities.”

     - Bill Curry, Packers offensive lineman and former assistant coach on The Undefeated

“We learned to judge our players and our team by their contribution on the football field. Now if my man [points at Willie Davis] could get to the quarterback, and he could save the game for me, I don’t care what he looks like, whether he’s handsome, tall, short or small or what he’s got. He’s my man. And so we had such a focus on winning and on putting the team first that if you could make a contribution, and you could have a positive impact on the field, that’s all we measured by.”

     - Jerry Kramer from video: Vince Lombardi - Breaking down racial barriers

One of my favorite articles is actually a recent piece from WTMJ on the friendship between Willie Davis and Jerry Kramer. As the Lombardi Era Packers pass away, some of these stories become harder to find, which makes me appreciate rereading them even more. The quotes and articles shared above are only a few glimpses into the 1960s Packers. So much history is out there to explore and cherish. 

There’s a lot the NFL can take away from the 1960s players and the way the locker room bonded under Lombardi. 

 

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Maggie Loney is a writer for Cheesehead TV, podcaster for the Pack-A-Day Podcast and Pack's What She Said, and hosts a weekly live show called Happy Hour through Game On Wisconsin. Find her on Twitter at @MaggieJLoney.

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Comments (30)

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Tundraboy's picture

June 02, 2020 at 01:27 pm

Growing up in the sixties and all that that meant I always looked at Lombardi and the Packers, with even more pride, as an example of putting right before wrong, Its that simple.if you have leaders with integrity. Growing up with a Sicilian mother , understanding Lombardi was easy.

Thanks for the article, brought back a lot of good emotions.

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fastmoving's picture

June 02, 2020 at 01:40 pm

I always say "Thank you Vince Lombardi and for way bigger things than the hardware". Great rollmodle, great views in general…….
And that was decades ago. We should do better today.

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WMA's picture

June 02, 2020 at 02:47 pm

Read "Lombardi's Left Side". Written by Herb Adderley and Dave Robinson. Great book - really drives Maggie's points about Lombardi home.

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Tundraboy's picture

June 02, 2020 at 04:58 pm

I will. Thanks

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Jackwagon's picture

June 02, 2020 at 04:07 pm

Coach and his Italian family were discriminated against since they arrived in America. He would never forget that feeling and absolutely would not allow it on his watch in football and life.

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mamasboy's picture

June 02, 2020 at 04:46 pm

I can't remember which player said this but, Lombardi told restaurant owners that NO Packers players would patronize them if black players weren't allowed to eat there too. That's quite a stand to take, in the early to mid sixties.

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WMA's picture

June 03, 2020 at 08:44 am

Believe there was a time a restaurant said the one black player could not eat in the restaurant - Lombardi had them bring out their ordered meals to the team bus where they all ate together.

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DrMixerGED's picture

June 03, 2020 at 09:52 am

That is amazing! He really walked the walk.

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mnbadger's picture

June 02, 2020 at 05:26 pm

I was born in 1962 so all memories I have of the coach are from stories. I've never heard that Lombardi was a pioneer. But I'm not surprised that his actions were done quietly, out of the spotlight and equally motivated by being a good human being and a champion.

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Johnblood27's picture

June 02, 2020 at 11:47 pm

If you have no first hand Lombardi knowledge read Maraniss "When Pride Still Mattered" and also take a read through "Lombardi" by Wiebusch for a compilation of quotes from the people throughout Lombardi's life that knew him from all perspectives.

Both great reads from my 14 volume Lombardi library section.

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gkarl's picture

June 02, 2020 at 07:44 pm

Maggie a truly enjoyable article. The videos and articles you included where also excellent. It help end my day on a good note. My congrats and thanks to you.

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Amy Berk's picture

June 02, 2020 at 09:35 pm

I grew in Green Bay as a little girl in the 60's. All I heard growing up was how the only Black people in Green Bay were Packers. This probably was true..a very white town...

Then on a TV show interviewing Dave Robinson and other Packers, Dave said how they had trouble finding a house to live in because of the discrimination.

Another story I heard was how Dave Robinson said he asked Vince Lombardi what he thought about marrying his to be wife who was white. Of course Lombardi didn't care about race...

One more story that came from Packer History....The Packers had to play in a southern state and Pete Rozelle told the teams when they travelled and they travelled by bus, that they would have to take 2 buses..One for blacks and one for whites. After they reached their destination, Lombardi said how he'll never do that again and was visibly upset that he even listened to Rozelle.

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Johnblood27's picture

June 02, 2020 at 11:50 pm

That wasn't Dave Robinson with the white fiance,

It was Lionel Aldridge.

https://www.milwaukeemag.com/the-long-walk-home-lionel-vicky-aldridge/

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Since'61's picture

June 02, 2020 at 09:53 pm

Numerous biographies have been written about Vince Lombardi. IMO the best is “When Pride Still Mattered” by David Maraniss
Regardless of which one(s) you choose to read you will find many examples of Lombardi standing up for his players regardless of their race.

Lionel Aldridge was engagaed to a white woman. In the mid 60s in conservative middle America they feared that it was going to cause problems with the league for Lombardi and the Packers organization. Aldridge went to Lombardi. Lombardi told Aldridge to go about your business and that he would handle the league, the press and anyone else who had a problem with couple. Without hesitation Lombardi gave them his blessing and stood up for them.

Lombardi did not believe in or accept or tolerate discrimination of any kind. He was way ahead of his time in that area. He was a great man on and off the field. Sadly we still need many, many, many more people like him in leadership positions to this day. Thanks, Since ‘61

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fordguy's picture

June 02, 2020 at 10:07 pm

Where is the "conservative middle America" you are referencing about?

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Since'61's picture

June 03, 2020 at 10:53 am

At the time in the ‘60s many mid western states were considered to be conservative strongholds. Since then, much has changed everywhere. Also, those are the words of the author Marrannis who I was paraphrasing for brevity. Thanks, Since ‘61

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jimmyellis166's picture

June 03, 2020 at 07:18 am

Vince Lombardi the man

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SwedeBayPacker's picture

June 03, 2020 at 07:31 am

We need more men like Vince Lombardi in our society

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DrMixerGED's picture

June 03, 2020 at 09:50 am

That is beautiful, Maggie. Vince was not only a great coach, but a great man.

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jeremyjjbrown's picture

June 03, 2020 at 10:58 am

Thanks Maggie! Fantastic.

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Jackwagon's picture

June 03, 2020 at 11:15 am

Reminds me of a similar story when the owner of a nightclub refused to let Sammy Davis ,Jr. in because he was black. The Rat Pack guys were all there. Frank Sinatra told the owner that if didn't allow Sammy in that they would all leave. Sammy said it's no big deal and that he would just leave. Frank said no way. Now I don't know what Sinatra told the owner. He might have just told him that he would tell all of his Hollywood friends to not frequent the establishment. Or he might have told him that bad things can happen to people that challenge Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was always connected to the Mafia in one way or another. So the owner relented and the entire Rat Pack entered the nightclub without issue. It was some ground breaking stuff as I believe that Sammy was probably the first colored person ever allowed in the place.

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fordguy's picture

June 03, 2020 at 12:42 pm

"reputation as the most democratic team in the NFL" The author probably should have known that the party of slavery, the KKK and Jim Crowe is the Democrats.

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SwedeBayPacker's picture

June 05, 2020 at 11:42 am

Imagine being so stupid you don't know the difference between "democratic" and "Democrats"

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WisconsinStrong's picture

June 03, 2020 at 02:03 pm

Whether writing on the eve of a big Packers game, or writing on bigger and more urgent issues like racism, Maggie has a gift for saying what we needed reminding of. Much respect and admiration not only for Maggie, but CHTV for being pioneers (like Lombardi) in elevating previously unheard voices--in this case, female Packers analysts. CHTV always carrying the G!

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Amy Berk's picture

June 04, 2020 at 09:34 pm

For clarification:
Known as the party of the "common man", the early Democratic Party stood for individual rights, state sovereignty, and opposed banks and the abolition of slavery.

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mnbadger's picture

June 04, 2020 at 02:32 pm

fordguy, don't forget the part about strom thurmond and george wallace being democrats at that time. When pres Johnson pushed for civil rights, the southern democrats took their racist views and built the current republican party. Don't tell half the story. GPG

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Slim11's picture

June 05, 2020 at 08:49 am

Don't forget to be accurate...George Wallace was never a Republican. He ran as an independent for president when he failed to win the Democrat nomination against Hubert Humphrey.

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Slim11's picture

June 04, 2020 at 03:09 pm

Two short stories about Lombardi and race...

During one preseason, the Packers were playing a game in the south. The team stopped to eat at a restaurant and Lombardi was told the black players could eat there, but had to enter and exit through the back door. The team ate there but Lombardi insured every player entered and exited through the back door.

Another time, the Packers were playing a game in the south. The team had a problem getting a hotel for the entire team. I don't know how he did it but Lombardi arranged for the team to stay at a nearby military installation so the entire team could stay in the same location.

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Amy Berk's picture

June 04, 2020 at 09:55 pm

Pro Football HOF and Packers LB Dave Robinson on The Fan:

"Vince Lombardi was questioned by people in town: 'Why are you wasting draft choices on black guys in the first round?'"

"Lombardi said 'The only colors in Green Bay are green and gold!'"

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harryolder's picture

July 14, 2020 at 05:08 am

It seems to me that this is a resonant story about human indifference. I read an educational article https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/racism/ about this topic and realized that we were moving backward. Bigger sport is a story about power and speed, but racism is a conscience and negative public resonance.

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