Vince Lombardi, the namesake of the Super Bowl's Lombardi Trophy, coached the Green Bay Packers to wins in the first two Super Bowls. Lombardi was a lifelong Democrat with liberal views on civil rights: he supported John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, Robert F. Kennedy in the 1968 primaries, and was also a supporter of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. Due to Lombardi's popularity, Richard Nixon once considered him as a possible running mate in the 1968 presidential election but dropped the idea upon learning about Lombardi's support for the Democratic Party.
When Lombardi was hired by the Packers in late January 1959, there was only one African-American player on the team. Most teams in the NFL by 1960 had a one, two or a handful of black players. The then-Washington Redskins didn't have any black players until 1962. Jack Vainisi, the scouting director for the Packers, and Lombardi were determined "to ignore the prejudices then prevalent in most NFL front offices in their search for the most talented players". Lombardi explained his views by saying that he "... viewed his players as neither black nor white, but Packer green". Because of his Italian heritage, he was the victim of discrimination. That probably accounted in large part to his rejection of prejudicial attitudes.
Among professional football head coaches, in the midst of the civil rights movement, Lombardi's anti-discrimination views were unusual. By 1967 the Packers had 13 black players. It should be noted than in the early 1960's many NCAA college football teams and even football conferences had no black players. Big colleges then as now were the recruiting pipeline for the NFL.
During his first training camp in Green Bay, Lombardi was notified by Packer veterans that an interracial relationship existed between one of the Packer rookies and a young woman. The next day at training camp, Lombardi—who was vehemently opposed to Jim Crow discrimination and had a zero-tolerance policy towards racism—responded by warning his team that if any player exhibited prejudice in any manner, that specific player would be thrown off the team.
Lombardi informed restaurant and bar owners in Green Bay that if they did not accommodate his black and white players equally well, that business would be off-limits to the entire team. Before the start of the 1960 regular season, he instituted a policy that the Packers would only lodge in places that accepted all his players. Lombardi also refused to assign hotel rooms to players based on their race: by 1967 the Packers were the only NFL team with such a policy.
In an 1961 exhibition game against the Washington football team in Columbus, Georgia Lombardi refused to comply with the south's Jim Crow laws. The Packers flew into Lawson Army Airfield the day before the game, stayed together – whites and blacks – at the bachelor officers' quarters at Fort Benning, a U.S. Army post located almost 10 miles outside Columbus. In another exhibition game, in 1962, Lombardi refused to approve a segregated seating plan at a football stadium thus cancelling the game.
Lombardi also stepped into Wisconsin's heated and prolonged political battle over a fair housing act. In 1960, when his black players were having trouble finding places to live, Lombardi approached local real estate developer and human rights advocate Norman Miller in search of a solution to the problem. Both then worked together to get a fair housing bill passed in Wisconsin, despite fierce opposition from the real estate industry, Milwaukee-area Democrats and most Republicans.
Lombardi had a gay brother, Hal, and worked with several gay men in the NFL, notes Ian O'Connor in a column for ESPNNewYork.com. "Long before it was fashionable, Lombardi was a champion of gay athletes, if only because he was a champion of all athletes, at least those who helped him score more touchdowns than the other guy," O'Connor writes. "It didn't matter if they were white or black, or if they dated men or women or both, or if they dated interracially or not."
Lombardi was known for driving his players hard, but he defended them against prejudice-based attacks. O'Connor quotes biographer David Maraniss's account of Lombardi's admonition to his staff concerning a gay player named Ray McDonald: "If I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood," Lombardi reportedly said, "you'll be out of here before your ass hits the ground."