EDITOR’S NOTE: Rush Limbaugh resigned from his post as an ESPN commentator on Wednesday night after a controversy ensued surrounding his suggestion that Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb has been overrated because the media want to see black quarterbacks do well. In the September 7, 2001, issue of National Review Steve Chapman addressed the issue of black quarterbacks and the media (including McNabb). The article is reprinted here.
Michael Vick is an extraordinary success story. During two seasons as quarterback for Virginia Tech, he completed only 177 passes-a puny number next to Florida State star and Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke, who connected 650 times during his time in Tallahassee. But Vick’s youth and modest experience didn’t matter–his multifaceted talent was enough to make pro football scouts salivate. When the NFL draft began on April 21, Vick was the first pick. A couple of weeks later, still too young to buy a beer, he signed a six-year deal with the Atlanta Falcons paying him $62 million-the richest rookie contract in the history of the league.
So what did New York Times football writer Mike Freeman have to say about this? He reached the same conclusion he always reaches when the subject of black NFL quarterbacks comes up: They never get a truly fair shake. “No matter how big a star you become,” he informed Vick, “some people will always view you as a black man first and a quarterback second.” In this he is in perfect accord with another Times football writer, Thomas George. Last season, after the Philadelphia Eagles’ Donovan McNabb ran for more yards in a game than any other quarterback in 28 years, George worried that he would be dismissed as just another brother who can’t pass-”because of pro football’s meager history of blacks playing the position and because of the penchant of so many people to pigeonhole them.”
If anyone still doubts the ability of black athletes to handle football’s most glamorous and pressure-packed job, it’s not NFL coaches. In the 1999 draft, the first eleven picks included three black quarterbacks. Last year, eight blacks started at least one game for the league’s 31 teams. Some are standouts, including McNabb, Minnesota’s Daunte Culpepper, and Tennessee’s Steve McNair, who in 2000 became only the second black QB to start in a Super Bowl. But blacks don’t have to excel to keep drawing a paycheck. Among those who took snaps last year were over-the-hill stars like Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham, run-of-the-mill veterans like Jeff Blake, and unproven youngsters like Michael Bishop and Jarious Jackson. This is the golden age of the black quarterback, a category that barely existed in the NFL a few decades ago. But the myth endures that white owners, coaches, and fans still harbor a prejudice against any black who presumes to play the position. Black players, we are told, still suffer from the hoary stereotype that they lack what it takes to do the job.
The numbers suggest that such attitudes are dead, and so does all the other evidence. Sentiment, after all, doesn’t count for much in the NFL. Trent Dilfer, a white QB, guided the Baltimore Ravens to a lopsided Super Bowl triumph last season, but the Ravens dumped him as soon as the champagne bottles were empty. Not until August did he manage to land a roster spot–in Seattle, backing up a guy who has never started a game. (Imagine what the New York Times would make of that if Dilfer were black.) Troy Aikman turned the Dallas Cowboys into one of the most successful teams of the last 20 years, but when the concussion-prone 34-year-old asked to suit up for one more season, the team showed him the door. Ryan Leaf, picked second in the 1998 draft by San Diego, was discarded as a hopeless brat after just three seasons. While Vick was going first in the draft, Weinke, who delivered one national championship to Florida State and just missed getting a second, had to wait until the 106th pick to find out where he’d be going.
Clearly, what teams look for is players who can produce on the field–regardless of looks, charm, family connections, church attendance, or other extraneous characteristics. When training camp opened this year, 25 of the league’s 31 teams had new quarterbacks on their rosters. The only reason we haven’t seen a pronghorn sheep line up under center is that no team has found one that can hit on a fade route.
It’s not hard to understand the league’s brutal single-mindedness. The NFL is relentlessly competitive, and when coaches and general managers get fired, it’s almost always for the sin of losing. None of them worries about forfeiting his job because he won with a dark-complexioned passer. Nor do fans seem to care much about the color that success (or failure) comes in.
McNabb, booed by disgruntled fans when the Eagles drafted him-they were hoping for (black) running back and Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams–is now the toast of Philly for his gaudy exploits on the field. Culpepper has made Vikings fans forget that Fran Tarkenton ever did anything but shill for lending companies on cable TV. To replace the legendary golden boy Aikman, Dallas signed Tony Banks–who is black and who last year, at Baltimore, got beat out by the unemployable Dilfer. When Banks disappointed in training camp, the Cowboys cut him and turned the helm over to rookie Quincy Carter, who is also black (as is his backup, Anthony Wright). If the perennially hapless Cincinnati Bengals are thinking of pulling the plug on black quarterback Akili Smith, to whom they gave a $10.8 million signing bonus two years ago, it has nothing to do with his race and everything to do with his chronic inability to hit receivers or win games. “Of the 34 quarterbacks who have been top 10 draft choices since 1970,” reports Sports Illustrated, “only three have had a lower completion percentage [than Smith] in their first two years.”
Nitpickers may say that blacks are “underrepresented” at quarterback, since some 73 percent of all NFL players are black. But black punters are far rarer than black quarterbacks. What deep-rooted racial stereotype could explain that? That the mental demands of the job are perceived as too formidable for blacks? If a racial disparity proves discrimination, white cornerbacks should be filing Title VII lawsuits. They are nearly unemployable in pro football, even though blue-eyed Caucasians somehow manage to perform adequately at other positions. Yet no one blames racial prejudice for their absence.
In some quarters, it’s considered naive to acknowledge racial progress. But when you look at the faces on NFL sidelines every week, it is plainly ludicrous to think racism is depriving black quarterbacks of the chance to show what they can do. The ruthlessly meritocratic pressures of professional football have turned a sport that was once overwhelmingly white into a fully integrated endeavor, and the meritocracy doesn’t suddenly stop functioning when it comes to the most important position on the roster. Once upon a time, blacks were regarded as inadequate to that job. But these days, in the eyes of the people who do the hiring and firing in the NFL, there are no white quarterbacks or black quarterbacks. There are just good ones and bad ones.
–Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.