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The Almost Unknown Turkey Bowl and Black Sheep

by Douglas Ankney

While fans of college football get excited in November about upcoming bowl games, few ever mention the Turkey Bowl, likely because almost none of those fans will be in attendance. Played annually – except for the unusual 2020 season canceled due to COVID-19 – the game draws all its players, referees and most of its fans from prisoners and staffers at Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, Louisiana.

Those incarcerated in Unit I vie with those from Unit II to determine who will be flag football champions of the year, while the fans – both prisoners and staff – cheer them on. After the COVID-19 hiatus, the Turkey Bowl returned in 2021 with the purple-jerseyed Hot Boyz suffering a 21-0 defeat at the hands of the Warriors, dressed in white.

Perhaps one reason the Turkey Bowl is mostly unknown traces to a prison football team that became so successful that a commissioner stepped in to curtail public attendance. On November 15, 1931, the crowd at the Sing Sing Black Sheep’s debut 33-0 win over the Ossining Naval Militia in New York included more than 2,000 prisoners and 500 spectators. The Black Sheep lost only one game that season, to the Port Jervis Police Department before a crowd of more than 7,000. The New York Times later reported that the Black Sheep had been cheated because the Port Jervis team “slipped thirteen ‘ringers’ in against the convict eleven at the prison field.” Port Jervis’ team also recruited local athletes instead of suiting up police officers.

The Black Sheep were active from 1931 to 1936, with winning seasons every year. Tim Mara, founder and owner of the New York Giants, coached the inaugural team. Not only one of the first prison football teams in the nation, the group was also racially integrated, at a time when no Black players were permitted in organized professional football.

Lewis E. Lawes, Sing Sing’s warden from 1920 to 1941, came up with the idea for a prison football team. A prison reformer who openly criticized the inequities of the American penal system, Lawes said in an interview that appeared in Sports Illustrated, “A baseball game or a football contest with reputable outside teams serves a twofold purpose: visitors learn to understand that prisoners are human, and prisoners appreciate the necessity of playing the game on the square with their fellows.”

While appreciative of the opportunity to showcase his talents at Sing Sing, Alabama Pitts, quarterback for the Black Sheep from 1931 until his early release in 1935, said: “I want a job. I don’t want to be known as Alabama Pitts, the jailhouse athlete.” The Philadelphia Eagles signed him as a running back, and on September 13, 1935, there were 20,000 fans in attendance to see Pitts’ debut. Even though the largest crowd in the young team’s three-year history chanted his name, Pitts was oddly benched, never playing a single down.

Pitts inspired a book written by Lawes that was turned into the 1938 film Over the Wall. The 1974 film The Longest Yard, with Burt Reynolds quarterbacking a prison football team, drew inspiration from the Black Sheep’s game against policemen from Port Jervis.

The Black Sheep game crowds grew to 7,000, catching the attention of New York State Commissioner of Corrections Edward P. Mulrooney. Worried that prisons had “no legal authority to collect funds from the general public,” he banned paid admissions to events at prisons. As funding dried up, the Black Sheep disbanded in the middle of their 1936 season.  

Source: JSTOR Daily

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