Revisiting the Complicated History of Sing Sing’s Football Team

The team was active in the 1930s

Sing Sing Prison
Counting the visitors to a football game in Sing Sing Prison.
Bettmann Archive

There’s a long history of prison reform in the United States, ranging from the early years of the nation’s history to much more recent developments. What you might not know about prison reform in the U.S., however, is the way that it dovetails with another kind of history — namely, that of sports taking place in prison facilities.

If your only point of reference for this are films like 1974’s The Longest Yard or its 2005 remake, suffice to say, there’s a lot more real-life history to be uncovered — and some surprising ways in which the history of football in prisons overlaps with the history of professional football.

In a new article at JSTOR Daily, Joshua Finnell looked back at the history of Sing Sing’s football team in the mid-20th century. The Sing Sing Black Sheep, as they were known, had their heyday in the 1930s, and their coach was someone whose impact on professional football is still felt today: Tim Mara, owner and founder of the New York Giants.

As Finnell explained, high-profile prison sports — including making games open to the public — emerged out of a desire for reform. The article cites a comment made by the prison’s warden, Lewis E. Lawes, who told Sports Illustrated that, via these games, “visitors learn to understand that prisoners are human, and prisoners appreciate the necessity of playing the game on the square with their fellows.”

JSTOR Daily’s article also notes that Sing Sing’s team was integrated long before (say) the Giants were. And one alumnus of the Sing Sing team, Alabama Pitts, went on to sign a contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Still, looking back on the history of the Black Sheep is a complicated matter, as nearly anything involving both football and incarceration tends to be. It remains a fascinating piece of history, though — and it may leave you wondering what other tales from this period have gone untold.

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