Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Fall And Rise Of The Black Quarterback: Past, Present And Future

I'd heard the descriptions and the arguments for Jerrod Johnson going into the Pittsburgh Steelers 2012 Training Camp: his mobility, his size (6' 5" 250lbs.), that he is a great athlete, that he set a Big 12 record for throwing 242 consecutive passes without an interception and that he was a Heisman candidate who got sidetracked by an injury.

There was one thing, though, I hadn't heard about him: he is Black.

Part of that is my fault for not being better aware. Not that I have to mention this, but most of your quarterbacks throughout college and pro history have looked like dollar bills. Still, it made me think: not once had I heard about him being a Black quarterback. Is that a step forward?

The more I thought about it the more it made me curious about the overall perception of the Black QB and even if the term needs to be used anymore. In August of last year, my partner wrote an article called "The NFL, The Rooneys and Racism." In it he wrote, "...and we won't even touch on the 'Blacks can't play quarterback' nonsense." - http://ifitaintsteel.blogspot.com/2011/08/nfl-rooneys-and-racism.html

Well, I think it's time to touch on it.

(Aside: In that article, my partner mistakenly wrote that the Pittsburgh Steelers' Lowell Perry became the first Black coach in the NFL in 1957. It was actually Fritz Pollard in 1921, which we'll actually cover briefly coming up.)

In all sports there was a time when the Black race was excluded in one way or another. Gradually, whether via governmental legislation, a change in social climate, common sense or the almighty dollar, that would eventually go away. But in no other sport has there been the type resistance to the playing of a position.

Whether it was the pitcher or the shortstop in baseball or the point guard in basketball, there hasn't been the same kind of impedance to the Black man playing quarterback. Most kickers and punters out there are white, but you never hear about the plight of the Black kicker/punter.

Why? The main reason was that it's the glamour position and because of a belief in a lack of the needed intelligence to play the position. To that I say hogwash! Have you seen who the POTUS is? No matter your political beliefs, you have to be mighty doggone smart to be the president. (Even when your last name is Bush.)

Are there certain factors that may contribute to the Black QB having less success? Yes. They're institutional, societal, and scientific (as well as somewhat environmental. None of them, though, are completely valid. At least not as an argument for saying the Black man can't be ultimately successful at the highest level. Let's look at the history of it and from this point going forward.

The Past ~

The first Black QB on record in the NFL was Fritz Pollard who was mentioned earlier. He was also a halfback who became player/head coach, or co-head coach, also the first in NFL history, depending on the source you quote. Ours are BlackAthlete.net, The Coffin Corner and Ezine Articles. Here's part one to a detailed history on the subject, some of which was used in the research for our "racism" article, that I encourage you to continue to examine: http://tinyurl.com/9jtr7hp

Due to racial attitudes and institution restrictions of the time, not many Black players were allowed to fully exploit their abilities. Pollard was a star in Track and football at Brown University, even becoming the first Black man to play in the Rose Bowl. - http://tinyurl.com/8hssdmh

Pollard would be the last starting QB pro football would see until 1968 when the Denver Broncos of the AFL put Marlin Briscoe under center. And it would be almost 50 years before the NFL would see another Black signal caller.

James Harris of the Buffalo Bills got the opportunity to start an NFL game, albeit an inauspicious one, as a rookie in 1969. It was the Los Angeles Rams, though, who presented the NFL with the first Black QB to start a playoff game in 1974: James Harris.

Still, though, with there being five decades separating having the chance to prove their abilities, stereotypes and stigmas became entrenched in the minds of many that it was too cerebral of a position for the Black man to succeed.

There were, and continually so for a long time thereafter, general managers and owners and, to some degree, coaches who believed whites were better quarterbacks. Engrained institutional and societal reasons were at play. There certainly are very specific traits and/or qualities needed to play the position at the highest level: Leadership, being able to make quick decisions, pocket presence, confidence, intelligence, throwing accuracy, etc... For the longest time the image of the "golden boy" was insidiously pervasive.

Do white QBs perform better in these areas than Black QBs. One could argue that perhaps. If you wanted to take it there, you could cite the historical difference in SAT scores between white and Black students if you wanted to claim a lack of intelligence. A gap that's narrowing, by the way.

The problem with that, though, is you'd be ignoring a greater societal issue. For centuries the Black race was conditioned to believe just that. That they were less intelligent and not as able to shoulder such weights. When something is beaten into you, literally and figuratively, for so long, you start to believe it. You're also saying that Blacks aren't smart enough to be leaders.

Duke Professor Ashleigh Shelby Rosette went further in explaining this paradox. She said that "the stereotype that Black athletes are not intellectually equal to their white counterparts clashes with typical positive leadership characteristics. Yet people are motivated to view successfull leaders in a positive light. To reconcile this contradiction, Black quarterbacks are viewed as great athletes instead of great leaders when their teams win. But when they lose, people focus on their lack of leadership instead of their athleticism; Black quarterbacks are seen as bad leaders, not bad athletes." - http://www.fuqua.duke.edu/news_events/releases/quarterbacks-leadership/#.UF5yG7e9Kc0

In fact, for over half of the life of the NFL, the Black player was directly or indirectly told he wasn't smart enough to lead. Really?

Fritz Pollard, mentioned earlier, was a Brown University graduate, was a head coach in the NFL and pursued a career in business and was a successful entrepreneur after retiring from the league...and I'm supposed to believe a man like that can't read a defense?

Like I said, when you're told something long enough, you start to believe it. Case in point: Mike Howell.

In 1988, legendary Grambling St. coach Eddie Robinson told Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press a story regarding his quarterback. He said that Howell told him that he wanted reps in the secondary because "I'm not going into the NFL as a Black quarterback." - http://mitchalbom.com/d/journalism/554/eddie-robinson-sees-dream-come-alive

That isn't just a one-sided thing, either. Football coaches, especially at the high school level, teach from what they know: tradition and experience. Their leadings have an affect, not only on the players they coach, but also on the magazines and websites that promote those players/prospects. Want proof? Look at the difference between the Top 15 "pro style" QBs and the Top 15 "dual threat" QBs for 2012 according to Rivals.com:

The Present ~

One could make the argument that there are many more Black athletes with premiere quickness and explosiveness, thus their dominating the the "skill" positions. Scientists report that Blacks have more fast twitch muscle fibers than whites and a more favorable center of gravity. Most sports favor athletes with quickness and explosiveness. Blacks, therefore, dominate most (American) sports.

Does this mean, though, that a Black athlete can't succeed as quarterback at the highest level? Not at all.

Even though there were QBs who did use their atheticism to their advantage and had a ran first, pass second mentality, Randall Cunningham, Kordell Stewart and Michael Vick as examples, there were also those who were and are "pro style" passers, Warren Moon, the late Steve McNair (known as "Air McNair" in college, though he did use his athleticism more in the NFL to advance his team to the Super Bowl) and Doug Williams (the first and only Black QB to win a Super Bowl).

Black males have been always been praised for their physical prowess and other endowments, while their white counterparts have been acknowledged for their intellect and work ethic. Perfect examples are Vince Young and Tim Tebow. Virtually the same quarterback in many ways, one has simply received more accolades than the other. Maybe it's like what Jamie Foxx said in "Any Given Sunday" after all: http://youtu.be/n9BD0BXIKU8

Still, Black QBs have flourished once given adequate chance. Period. The fact that Blacks weren't even allowed to regularly play the position until well into the 1980s can't be ignored. If you had a fifty year head start, you'd be behind the curve too. Will that be used as an excuse? No! Which leads us to...

The Future ~

Nothing you could tell me could make me believe the Black man doesn't have the intelligence or capacity to lead. I see it in the one who sits in the Oval Office. Even though they don't start, I see it with my beloved Steelers in the backups entrusted to step in if Ben Roethlisberger cannot-one of whom, Charlie Batch, will assuredly coach one day. And I see it every weekend in the future of NFL QBs across the country. The likes of Washington's Keith Price, Clemson's Tajh Boyd and my West Virginia Mountaineers' very own Geno Smith.

Washington quarterback Keith Price is easily the second best QB in the Pac-12. Last season he passed for 3,063 yards with 33 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. This season he's already led his Huskies to a win over No. 8 Stanford.

The ACC is filled with talented QBs and Clemson's Tajh Boyd is the best of them all. Last year he threw for 3,828 yards with 33 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and has a chance to improve on those numbers this year with talented weapons at his disposal. A 4,000 yard and 35 touchdown season is a strong possibility for Boyd.

Lastly, Geno Smith. He was spectacular in all facets of the game in 2011. He had 4,385 passing yards, 31 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. He has tremendous poise and pocket presence. He's the undisputed leader of the team and might have more weapons on offense than anybody in the country. Especially if he can lead the Mountaineers to 10 or 11 wins, Geno is a legitimate Heisman contender. - http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=8440471

If so, he'd be in good company. The last two Heisman Trophy winners and three of the last six have been Black QBs: Troy Smith (2006), Cam Newton ('10) and Robert Griffin III ('11). Though, Smith hasn't panned out, the future is very bright for both Newton and RGIII.

Those aren't the only ones, either. The landscape of the quarterback position is evolving to include a QB who can run AND has a pocket presence that allows him to know when to stay that extra nanosecond to deliver an accurate pass. And the college ranks are full of such players-both white and Black. Though still not immensely predicated on those fast twitch muscle fibers to make an immediate physical decision, the ability to do so has always been an asset. If you don't believe me ask Fran Tarkenton, Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw and Steve Young-they could run and had a few Super Bowls between them too.

As I asked in the beginning of this piece, have we taken a step forward? Yes, I'd say so. Do we still have a ways to go before articles like this are pointless? Yes, we do. There are aspects of this subject that could be debated over many more articles. The bottom line for me is to simply get to a point where we call the Black QB by just what this article alluded to at the outset: a quarterback.