March Madness: Meet the Catholic Priest Who Helped Desegregate College Basketball
Father Joseph Nearon, while a student at Manhattan College, was instrumental in integrating college basketball tournaments and later became one of the few Black priest theologians in the United States.
As winter moves into spring, March Madness has triggered office betting pools — for entertainment purposes only, of course — along with galvanizing school spirit around the country.
But there was a time when most of today’s stars would have been ineligible to play. It took, during the late 1940s, an organization of Catholic university students to crash down the doors of basketball racial segregation.
A major player in remedying the injustice was a future Catholic priest.
Among the student leaders was Joseph Nearon of Manhattan College in the Bronx, New York, a school founded by the Christian Brothers. Nearon was later ordained a Blessed Sacrament priest and became a leader in the emerging field of Black theology, drawing connections between Catholic faith and the Black American experience.
“It’s important to tell their stories,” Kevin Ahern, a theology professor at Manhattan, noted. Ahern has been doing research for a book project on the National Federation of Catholic College Students. In the course of his research, he kept running into references to Nearon. His face pops up in the school yearbook across a wide swath of student organizations, one of the few Black students at Manhattan at the time.
Nearon, born in 1928, grew up in nearby Yonkers, New York, and was the first recipient of a scholarship provided through the student group, the American counterpart of Pax Romana, established in Europe in the 1930s.
Nearon became a leader in the organization, which in the late 1940s became active in racial justice issues. At Manhattan College, the group targeted the National Association for Intercollegiate Basketball, the forerunner of the NCAA. That organization’s tournament specifically allowed for only “non-Negro” participants in a contractual clause signed by participating colleges.
The Federation of Catholic College Students at Manhattan objected, along with those from a rival, the Franciscan-run Siena College near Albany. Although the schools were scheduled to compete in the tournament, the two student groups linked efforts to persuade their respective schools to boycott the game until the wrong was righted.
The trigger for the case involved Indiana State University, whose team was prohibited from the tournament because it included Clarence Walker, a Black player.
“They forced the association to remove that clause,” said Ahern, who noted that the cause was helped as the college tournament directors were afraid of a widespread boycott from Catholic schools, which comprised much of the fan base for the sport at the time.
After that social justice victory, the young Nearon graduated from Manhattan and began seminary studies, entering the novitiate of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers in 1951. He studied in Rome and was ordained a priest there in 1955 and embarked on a career focused on theological studies. His theology dissertation was on the Eucharist and the Resurrection in the Gospel of John, and he became known for his insights on the Scriptures.
He taught at John Carroll and, later, Xavier University in New Orleans, the nation’s only historically Black Catholic college. At Xavier, he founded the Institute of Black Catholic Studies. He taught at seminaries, including St. Joseph’s in Cleveland as well as in Liberia and served as superior of his religious community.
Much of Nearon’s priesthood reflected the activism of his student days.
He was known for his work in nascent Black Catholic and social justice organizations which emerged after Vatican II. He also had a droll sense of humor, known for his ethnic wise cracks and use of dialect. As the sole Black member of the Catholic Theological Society of America at the time, he addressed the group at a convention on the subject of Black theology, and noted, “As I look out around this convention, I am the field this morning.”
He died at the age of 55 in 1984 of pneumonia and encephalitis while driving home to Cleveland from New Orleans. At the time he was a consultant for U.S. bishops writing a pastoral on the Black Catholic experience. His funeral, at the St. Pascal Baylon Church in Cleveland, brought together much of the leadership of America’s Black Catholics. They included three Black bishops and Sister Thea Bowman, now being considered for sainthood, who served as cantor.
“We all deeply loved Joe, who was the ultimate architect of all Black Catholic organizations,” said Bishop James Lyke, the homilist and then a Cleveland auxiliary bishop who later became archbishop of Atlanta, quoted in the Cleveland Call & Post.
According to the newspaper account, Lyke remembered his friend as one “who cared naught for mundane things such as being tidy” and was more zealous “about his Father’s business” through his zeal for his ministry and concern for Black Catholic life in particular. Nothing was recorded about Nearon’s contribution to basketball, however.
Today the NCAA tournament reaches a television audience of nearly 20 million and sellout crowds, and has been blamed — or credited — for a massive downturn in office productivity in March. The future Catholic priest who brought together his faith and his Black heritage can now be known as more than just a footnote to sports history.