Pro Football Artists of the 1960s

By Andrew D. Linden

Dissertations are hard. While writing a long piece of sport history, you uncover many stories about events of the sporting past, narratives of individual heroics on and off the playing fields, and many pieces of important contextualization. Yet, eventually you must decide what stays and goes. In my dissertation, I analyze the intersections between social politics and professional football from the late 1950s through the 1980s. It is during this time that pro ball became the most popular sport in the United States. It became, according to historian Richard Crepeau, the new “national pastime.”  I study professional football players who engaged political issues from across the partisan spectrum—those who endorsed the counterculture and New Left, those who supported New Right ideology, those who trumpeted feminisms, and those who marched for the civil rights of marginalized racial and ethnic peoples. While doing this research, I ran across two players whose stories are powerful, yet just didn’t “fit” into the larger arc of my work. These are their stories.

In the post-World War Two era, a small number of black athletes desegregated the major professional football leagues. Kenny Washington and Willie Strode in the NFL and Marion Motley and Bill Willis in the fledgling All-America Football Conference were followed by a handful of players who fought against racial oppression and joined the leagues from the late 1940s through the 1960s. Sport historian David K. Wiggins calls this the “romantic era” of desegregation; that is, the era we fondly remember for players who courageously took part in leagues and organizations that had, prior to the 1940s, been lily-white. Often, these stories include star players and their actions on the field.

What is frequently left out is the life stories of those not remembered in halls of fames and for being elected to all-star games. Moreover, these stories typically focus on players who acted political in a conventional sense. That is, they focus on players who fought for inclusion into white society, or in this case, white sport. What the stories also miss, are the players who tacitly engaged social politics by connecting with the cultural milieu. For example, some players began to trumpet ideals of the movement for Black Power, which, as historians suggest, included an emphasis on the black experience and the Black Arts movement. These expressions, however, were not always explicit. Some players tacitly engaged social politics by participating in activities off of the field.

Two such athletes were NFL players and artists Bernie Casey and Ernie Barnes.

Bernie Casey was born in the small town of Wyco, West Virginia, in 1939. After traveling with his family to Ohio, he attended Columbus’s East high school where he quickly became an athletic star. In doing so, Casey earned himself a chance to continue his athletic career at Bowling Green State University (BGSU), a school he chose, in part, because of its top-ranked art department. Upon joining the department, Casey found a way to express himself. “I decided,” he told a reporter in the late 1960s, “this is me, my bag, man, sink or swim. It was a new romance, and I knew it was a love affair that would never stop.”[1]

While at BGSU, however, Casey became more well-known for his athletic ability. He excelled at track and field where he emerged as one of the best high-hurdlers in the country, earning a trip to the 1960 United States Olympic Trials. Casey also became involved in the civil rights movement. For example, in 1961, when civil rights protests occurred on campus, Casey, who was recognized around the college by that time as an athlete, became one of the leaders who spoke out for peaceful demonstrations. However, after being drafted into the NFL by the San Francisco 49ers in 1961 (with the ninth overall pick in the draft), Casey did not appear as a political figure, at least not in a conventional way.

Casey found another a way to express himself away from the field and away from protest movements of the era. During the NFL off seasons, Casey worked toward taking his Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from BGSU, where he focused on painting. Casey viewed the gridiron as a place where he could fight for his ability to engage his true passion, expression. While playing football, Casey often reported that he was only continuing his NFL career for the money and as a way to fund his artistic undertakings. He even looked for artistic opportunities on the field. As he told a San Francisco Sun Reporter journalist in 1968 while playing for the L.A. Rams, “I’ve been in a huddle and gotten an idea for a painting. I’ve seen a section of light before me—part of the grandstands, a collection of cigarette butts—and its freezes and comes out as one of my paintings.” [sic][2]

Casey became a successful artist while in the NFL. After earning his MFA, he began installing exhibitions across the country. One display at L.A.’s Ankrum Gallery in early 1968 comprised of twenty oil paintings he had completed while in his dormitory during the Rams’ training camp prior to the season. While he admits his first show, in 1963, was more of a spectacle than an art exhibition because of the oddity of a gridironer taking to the canvas, explaining “once the freak thing wore off, the openings were like normal openings, with mainly art patrons and very few sports fans.”[3] Casey soon made painting a part of his life. While living in L.A., every morning, he awoke at 7 a.m., painted until 9:30 a.m., and then headed off to practice with the Rams until 5 p.m., and then, if not too tired, he returned to the easel.

But, for the most part, football did not offer him what he desired. Football, he felt, thwarted his means of expression. “Football doesn’t interest me creatively. I play as well as I can, and I forget all about it. Football is my job. It’s not a sport at all, not when they charge six bucks a ticket.” He further explained to the Chicago Defender: “My occupation is being a painter. I like to think of myself as an artist who plays football, not a football player who paints.”[4] Yet, he maintained: “I don’t hate the game, I just approach it realistically. There are many more issues to get concerned about than whether I drop a down-and-out.”[5]

Casey had no issue leaving the football field to enjoy his true passion. “After giving it much thought,” he told the Chicago Daily Defender in spring 1969, “I am retiring to devote all of my time and energies to my creative interests.”[6] As he explained, “I knew that whenever I made a decision to discontinue playing professional football, I would do so and not look back. . . . It is time that I assume the role of a painter.”[7] Casey found art, not football, as a way to express himself.

While Casey made headway as an athlete-expressionist, perhaps the best know artist-football player of the era was Ernie Barnes. Born in Durham, North Carolina, Barnes grew up a small child, and often reports being bullied by bigger kids. As such, he found retreat in his sketch books. However, upon becoming an excellent athlete at Hillside High School he received many scholarship offers, eventually landing at North Carolina College at Durham (now North Carolina Central University). Barnes earned All-Conference honors in football as both a tackle and a center. Like Bernie Casey, however, Barnes found his true passion when he chose to major in art.

Washington drafted Barnes in 1959, but quickly traded him to the Baltimore Colts. Barnes met his teammates, including black players Lenny Moore, Jim Parker, and Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, before the Colts played the New York Giants in the 1959 NFL Championship game. After watching the Colts cruise to victory, 31-16, Barnes went home and immediately began painting. “Without making any preliminary sketches,” he remembers, “I started painting in quick, direct movements hoping to capture the vision in my mind before it evaporated.” After an hour, he finished The Bench. The painting made headlines in Baltimore and a news reporter did a story on Barnes, the football player and now artist. Over his short pro career—he only played for five seasons with multiple teams—Barnes became known as “Big Rembrandt” to his teammates, and often carried a pencil in his sock on the practice field to sketch during downtime. He often sketched his teammates, and these drawings were sometimes included in game day programs sold at the stadium. Barnes had a short rendezvous with the Canadian Football League, but after fracturing his ankle, he retired to take on art full-time. He became the “official artist of the American Football League” after New York Jets owner, Sonny Werblin, signed him to paint his players, but Barnes quickly got into more serious endeavors.

Ernie_barnes_no_61_san_diego_chargers_in_action

Ernie Barnes playing with the San Diego Chargers, 1961-1962. # 61 Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

While Casey and Barnes artistic careers seem rather insignificant on the surface, exploring their artistic expressions broadens understandings of the effects of black culture on professional football in the era. Some scholars, such as Joel Dinerstein, have argued that in the 1970s, football players began to infuse black culture into the white institution of football through movement. For example, black footballers using their “speed, acceleration, sudden changes in tempo; self-expression and flamboyance; quick cuts and spin moves; improvisational decision making; hip ‘convulsions’ and shoulder movements” changed the game. Furthermore, these movements were all attributed to an African American culture of expression.[8] Journalist William Rhoden refers to this “Black Style” as a “state of mind” and one that is a “reaction to racism.” Indeed, black athletes in the era following desegregation transformed sport on the field. They also looked for ways to express themselves off of it, largely because throughout the era, the white institution of sport clamped down on “Black Style” on the field as they were, according to Dinerstein, “antithetical to sport’s valorized ethos of teamwork and traditional white masculinity.”[9]

Therefore, the off-the-field engagements of black football players, like Casey’s and Barnes’ paintings, offer another look into players fight for freedoms in the postwar era. Barnes pained black football players, specifically focusing on their bodies, and he first used the harsh conditions of playing professional football as a means of expression. He painted portraits of football players typically in poses that emphasized the brutality of the game and he was influenced by African American culture, especially after viewing the work of black artist Charles White, who was a mainstay during the Harlem Renaissance. As Barnes told a reporter later in life,

It was the first time in my life that I had seen images reflecting Black lifestyle and it made a profound impression on me. One that made me commit to one day producing the type of art that would awaken serious reflections about human life.

Ernie_barnes_with_in_remembrance_painting

Ernie Barnes with painting “In Remembrance.” Photo from 2002. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

He combined this desire to reflect black culture with his wish to reproduce his sport experience. He often said that he wanted to focus on “the rhythms and passions of sports” in his work. Also influenced by black writer and art dealer Benjamin Horowitz, who was a “pioneer in the early days of the Los Angles black arts movement,” Barnes eventually moved away from simply painting football bodies and moved to create “more general, humanist subject matter relating to his life in Black Los Angeles and the traditions of the African American community,” as the communications and African American Studies scholar Paul Von Blum describes. For example, he painted the The Sugar Shack—a painting depicting black dancers which, according to Barnes, “shows that African-Americans utilize rhythm as a way of resolving physical tensions.[10] In describing one of his travelling exhibitions, The Beauty of the Ghetto (1972), Barnes explains that he provided “a pictorial background for an understanding into the aesthetics of black America.”[11] Barnes work, overall, suggests his desire in life to express more than playing professional football offered him.

Casey’s and Barnes’s stories raise numerous questions for sport historians. How did black players in professional football (and other major leagues that desegregated during the era) begin to look beyond simple inclusion in their sport(s)? How did they shed the rigid social norms inherent in football? Casey and Barnes remind us to look beyond desegregation when writing histories of athlete-activists. In fact, their stories shed light on the many ways that black football players engaged social politics in the era of desegregation, and connected with a tenet of the civil rights movement (and Black Power movement) of the era: cultural change. Casey and Barnes were not the first to break into white football; nor are they usually remembered for their on-the-field accomplishments. Their lives, however, illuminate how many players throughout the era of the desegregation began to connect with broader cultural changes of the era.

Andrew D. Linden is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Adrian College. He is the co-editor of Sport in American History. He can be reached at alinden@adrian.edu and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. Check out his website at www.andrewdlinden.com.


Notes:

[1] “Bernie Casey—An Artist On and Off the Field,” The Sun Reporter [San Francisco], December 28, 1968, 25.

[2] “Bernie Casey—An Artist On and Off the Field,” The Sun Reporter [San Francisco], December 28, 1968, 25.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Rams’ Flanker: An Artist Who Plays Football,” The Chicago Defender, October 7, 1967, 16.

[5] “Bernie Casey—An Artist On and Off the Field,” 25.

[6] “Bernie Casey Retires,” Chicago Daily Defender, May 10, 1969, 34.

[7] Regina M. Skinner, “Bernie Casey Assumes His Role As A Painter: Woman’s View,” Sun Reporter [San Francisco], May 10, 1969, 37.

[8] Ibid., 178.

[9] Also see Levy, Tackling Jim Crow, 154. The football institution seemed “embarrassed by the changes” and the emergence of this so-called black aesthetic style. As historian Alan Levy explains, many head coaches in the 1970s “sought to clamp down” on the influence of black culture” (or black aesthetics). Furthermore, many rules in the late twentieth century attempted to end individualistic expressions of the body while on the field.

[10] That painting was featured in the TV show Good Times and the 1976 Marvin Gaye album, I Want You.

[11] The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. September 16, 1973.

2 thoughts on “Pro Football Artists of the 1960s

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