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The Super Bowl And The Black Quarterback

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Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

I sat on the couch next to my 53-year old mother, and I engaged her in some small talk about the Super Bowl. She’s a casual fan who tunes into games from time to time in between playing old Motown records and watching televangelists. While the team names are familiar, the names of the particular players are fuzzy and her relationship with football is admittedly fairly superficial. When I mention the Super Bowl, she responds in her heavy Jamaican accent, “One of the team has a black man quarterbacking, right? That’s rare, right? I hope he wins. We don’t really win playing quarterback.”

That last line made me simultaneously proud and really disappointed.

In a letter to Tom Brokaw, Roger Stanton — publisher of Football Weekly magazine — wrote the following: “Black athlete players traditionally lack discipline, and they are the ones most likely to get into trouble.” He then acknowledged yet dismissed Doug Williams, the Redskins quarterback who led his team to a victory in Super Bowl XXII by claiming, "That may have been a fluke. Frankly speaking, the quarterback is a very intricate position, and there are not very many blacks who are qualified to be quarterbacks."

This was 1989.

Black football fans of that generation watched as black quarterback after black quarterback graduated from the collegiate level only to have NFL coaches and executives value their athleticism in other positions than their potential as franchise quarterbacks. Talent evaluators fed into the false narratives about black inferiority in not so subtle ways. Black quarterbacks on a collegiate level were transformed into defensive backs or wide receivers in the pros. 

The millennial generation refused to accept that black football players be shunned from the quarterback position. Despite the unprecedented success and opportunities for black quarterbacks, the criticisms of even the best black quarterbacks were tinged with racial undertones. Michael Vick lacked “preparation” and wasn’t a “student of the game”;  Donovan McNabb didn’t have the “heart” to compete, and was a victim of a Rush Limbaugh attack, where Limbaugh suggest McNabb was some sort product of an imaginary affirmative action system in the NFL. Even Dante Culpepper‘s work ethic was questioned while he intensely rehabbed from chronic knee injuries. 

After the failures of Jamarcus Russell and Vince Young, the decline of Donovan McNabb, and the off-the-field implosion of Michael Vick, the future of the black quarterback looked bleak. Progress was at a crossroads, and the nuanced perspectives on the issue seemed hard to come by. 

But in 2011, the success of No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton in his rookie season opened the door for the 2012 season where the league embraced the heavily-loaded term “athletic, mobile quarterback.” Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick all led teams to playoff berths in their first year as a starter. For the first time it seemed as though coaches opened up the playbook to take advantage of the extensive skills of these dynamic players. Credit to the coaches for understanding the talent in front of them. They didn’t ask their quarterbacks to conform to the traditional offensive systems. The young quarterbacks were offbeat, exciting and improvisational. Most importantly, if you were a coach, GM or a fan, they won. 

Although, I was pulling for the Saints upset, when Wilson’s Seahawks beat the Saints in the Divisional Round, I was happy, because once again we were guaranteed that a quarterback of African-American descent would have a shot at winning the Super Bowl. This was another opportunity to topple the stereotypes and the borderline racist characterizations of the abilities of the black quarterback that have lingered for years. Super Bowl XLVIII is another chance to silence perceived limitations in intelligence, discipline and style that continue to persist, although there’s evidence to the contrary. It’s a chance to prove a quarterback can simultaneously ad-lib and throw with precision, be electrifying outside of the pocket and poised inside of it as well, and most importantly, win with these principles that were once believed to be a paradox.  

Like Steve McNair, McNabb and Kaepernick before him, Wilson has the opportunity to pierce the armor of those old played-out sentiments. It’s the last step before this all comes full circle, where we can open up a more all-inclusive assessment of what it takes to be a great quarterback. Talented starters, MVP trophies and winning are not enough to change the narrative — Super Bowls are imperative. Wilson has a chance to be what Williams was to the previous generation: to send a message once and for all that the black quarterback is not only here to stay, but a viable option to lead a franchise to a championship. 

I feel a small tinge of guilt rooting for Wilson because we’re both black. But as the late, great Ralph Wiley once questioned, “We all vicariously play through the people on the field on NFL Sundays — reflecting our own unique frame of reference. If they look like us, are we more likely to root for them?”

In this case, yes.