This has been on my mind for a little while, so I’m finally going to write about it, in light of Donovan McNabb’s comments that black quarterbacks “have to do a little bit extra” and that “people didn't want us to play this position.” I want to talk about black quarterbacks and racism in the NFL.
It’s obviously a sensitive issue. It’s gotten people fired. Safe journalists don’t talk about it. No one wants to believe there is racism in the NFL, and perhaps talking about it will only stir things up and make them worse.
First of all, what is racism?
a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.
I don't think there’s much of #3 in the NFL. Every team has black and white players, and they slap each other on the back and whatnot. There is a clause in #1, though, that causes some concern.
That clause is “inherent differences.” I don’t believe that it’s racist to say that black people tend to be faster than white people. Look at races in the Olympics, the top base stealers in baseball, the players at running back, cornerback, wide receiver – the speed positions – there’s a trend that can’t be ignored, and doesn’t need to be. It’s not as clear-cut of a trend, but it also seems that black people tend to be stronger than white people, that is to say, African-Americans build muscle more easily.
Of course, it’s not going to offend most people to point out African-American’s general natural advantages. It’s sad to think of where those advantages come from (survival of the fittest and breeding in the days of slavery, for one), but pointing out that black people are generally faster is not racist. It’s when we get into questions of white people’s natural advantages that flags get raised.
One reason is that white people are not the once-oppressed race. White people were not enslaved because they were thought to be inferior, and they didn’t face a century of discrimination and hate crimes after the abolition of slavery. But I think the real reason for the perceived racism in the NFL is because of a “natural advantage” that some people believe white people have. And it’s especially sensitive because it deals with the brain, which opens doors for people to talk about racial superiority.
I would never say that white people are smarter than black people, even generally speaking. First, how can one measure “smartness”? Test scores? IQ tests? No. Sometimes my girlfriend asks me to help her with some piece of writing, and I come up with a better way to word what she was trying to say, and she makes some comment about how I’m smarter than her. I hate it. I’m not smarter, I’m just better at writing. “Smarter” means nothing.
But there have been many people over the years who have considered white people to generally be smarter than black people. That’s why most talk of racism in the NFL is confined to three places: quarterback, coaching, and front office. Sure, I’ve heard some people complain about white wide receivers getting the shaft and getting labeled “possession receivers” because they’re not as fast, but if you prove you are that fast, you get Wes Welker’s job with the Patriots. Speed can be measured, and you can prove yourself. Brains cannot.
I believe white people’s brains TEND to be wired differently, and that some of that wiring is more useful at quarterback, coach, and the business of running a team. There are exceptions all over the place, of course. For example, it seems to me that a black person’s brain tends to operate more instinctively, whereas a white person’s brain tends to operate more methodically. Please notice how often I’m using the word “tend” here – there are always, always exceptions. The instinctive brain is more capable of improvisation, which greatly helps a running back, and is useful for quarterbacks when scrambling or otherwise evading the pass rush. The methodical brain is more capable of planning and anticipating, which helps quarterbacks and coaches stay one step ahead of the opponent, and helps them tend to be patient. This gets perceived as “smartness,” and I totally disagree.
Quarterback rating is, perhaps, slanted to favor the methodical brain. Every factor is measured against attempts. So where the instinctive quarterback would evade the rush, escape the pocket and throw the ball away, the methodical quarterback might lie down and take the sack. Which would you rather have? The choice is obvious. But the instinctive quarterback’s rating has suffered, and the methodical guy’s rating stands pat. So one could make the case that passer rating is a racist stat, but in doing so, one would have to concede that it’s not racist to say that black quarterbacks tend to have what I have termed “instinctive brains.”
Now as far as coaches are concerned, I believe most of the black head coaches in the NFL have methodical brains. They are exceptions to the racial tendencies. You must have a methodical brain to be a successful game planner. And there are hardly any African-American general managers or team presidents, just like there are hardly any African-American multi-billionaire businessmen. I don’t care to talk about business, I’m here to talk about football, but I’m sure that brain wiring tendencies come into play to explain this phenomenon.
So, back to Donovan McNabb. He thinks he faces more criticism than the white guys. Maybe so, but I have to say that the most racist criticism I’ve heard against him went the other way, when Freddie Mitchell accused him of being a “company man.” No teammate, black or white, would ever make the same accusation about Brady, Manning, Bulger, or any white QB in the league. But because McNabb is black, his black teammate expected him to “be one of us.” That, in my opinion, is messed up.
Is it racism when he faces more criticism than Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? No. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are near-infallible. Is it racism when he faces as much criticism as Brett Favre? Perhaps, because McNabb is a better quarterback. But let’s pick a fair comparison – say Matt Hasselbeck. Both are in their early thirties, both have had injury problems of late, both have taken teams to the Super Bowl and lost. Who faces more criticism? McNabb, easily. Why though?
One factor is certainly location. East Coast bias is part of it—the media pays more attention to teams that play between Washington and Boston, no doubt about it. Also, Philadelphia’s rivalries are more intense. SeattleSt. Louis, San Francisco, and Arizona, all of whom play more than 600 miles away, is still in the making. Philadelphia has storied rivalries with Dallas, Washington, and the Giants. What do rivalries have to do with it? McNabb has three cities in addition to his own watching his every move and looking for weaknesses. The scrutiny on what happens in Seattle is far less intense in San Francisco. recently moved to the NFC, and its rivalry with
I do, however, believe that if Hasselbeck had thrown the same game McNabb had last night, he wouldn’t have gotten as much blame for the loss. It’s not (if at all) just because of race; Hasselbeck is not the face of his franchise, never had the weighty expectations McNabb has, and never took the NFL by storm—someday he’ll leave as quietly as he arrived. McNabb has always had high expectations, from draft day to the present. And except for the fact that he hasn’t won an MVP award or Super Bowl, he’s met those expectations.
And this is where Rush Limbaugh had a point. Now, keep in mind, I can’t stand Limbaugh, and he was rightfully fired for his idiotic comment that McNabb is overrated because he is black. It wasn’t only stupid, but plain wrong—McNabb is far from overrated. But he was right that much of America wants to see a black quarterback succeed, particularly the media and the NFL head office. It would be good for the NFL if a black QB won the Super Bowl, just as it was good for the NFL that a black head coach won last year (and two made it). It would prove racial stereotypes wrong and bolster the claim that racism is dying. If Carson Palmer retires without a Super Bowl ring, it will be less disappointing to those outside Cincinnati than if McNabb fails to accomplish the same feat.
America’s desire for a black champion is evident in the young guys. I’ve heard far more talk about Vince Young and Jason Campbell eventually getting their teams to the Super Bowl than Matt Leinart, Alex Smith, and Jay Cutler. Of the three projected starters going into the preseason who most people pegged as the 30th, 31st, and 32nd best starting QBs in the league, two have lost their jobs (Brodie Croyle and Charlie Frye) and one has not (Tarvaris Jackson). Jackson has not outplayed the other two, but he still has his job.
Call it the Great Black Hope. Oh, and by the way, I think it’s great. So don’t accuse me of racism here. I want to see a black QB win the Super Bowl as much as Roger Goodell does. Why do you think I predicted Baltimore vs. Philly? I thought it’d be great for McNair and McNabb to be the Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy of quarterbacks.
So there’s my diatribe. Hope it provoked some thought.