Q/A with Ross Greenburg: Sports documentary master discusses his latest on early African-American players in pro football

My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana is a Q/A with one of my favorite people in sports media, Ross Greenburg.

From the column.


It is inevitable that Ken Burns’ name would be brought up during the course of a conversation with Ross Greenburg on documentaries.

“He is the master,” Greenburg said. “I don’t have the same moniker that he has, but I like to think we have similar styles.”

I quickly had to throw a flag on Greenburg for being overly modest. When it comes to sports TV, and especially sports documentaries at HBO, Showtime, NBC and elsewhere, he has 52 Sports Emmys that show the Ross Greenburg name is a strong moniker in this business.

“Thanks, I appreciate that,” Greenburg said.

That begs the question: What does one do with 52 Emmys? Build a separate warehouse?

Greenburg laughed, “I have half at home and half at the office.”

Greenburg could be in line for a 53rd Emmy — or at the very least a nomination — with his latest documentary. “Forgotten Four: The Integration of Pro Football,” premieres at 8 p.m. (ET) Tuesday on EPIX.

While everyone knows the tale of Jackie Robinson, Greenburg’s film tells the little-known story of the four African-American men, including Hall of Famers Marion Motley and Bill Willis, who re-integrated pro football in 1946. There were African-American players during the early days of the NFL. However, the league, like Major League Baseball, had “a gentleman’s agreement” making it all white, beginning in 1933.

It is a visually striking film that features compelling inside accounts from the children of the four men. It also tells the role Paul Brown played in breaking the color barrier. Greenburg calls him “the Branch Rickey of pro football.”

“Forgotten Four” is an important history lesson told through the perspective of sports.

The film gave me the chance to explore Greenburg’s approach to sports documentaries and why they are more popular than ever.

Q: How did “Forgotten Four” come about?

Greenburg: A year ago, Wes Smith, my co-executive producer, said we should look at African-Americans in pro football from 1900 through 1950. During the course of the discussion, Wes said, “You know, 1946 was the year they re-integrated pro football.” I went, “What? You’re telling me the re-integration of pro football happened the year before Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Dodgers?”

After I picked myself up off the floor, I said, “There’s our documentary. We’re going to tell the story of these forgotten players.”

Q: What light bulb needs to go on before you go ahead with a documentary?

Greenburg: You have to find a story with a beginning, middle and end. In this case, I knew there were African-American players (during the early days of NFL). I knew the owners conspired to restrict them from playing. What I didn’t know was, what happened after that?

I also look for stories with high drama that have a protagonist and an antagonist. In this case, (Washington owner) George Preston Marshall was the antagonist (for being behind the ban). The protagonist was Paul Brown, who never had been given the credit for his role. All the pieces were in place to develop an excellent story.


Here’s the link to read the rest of the column.


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