Many would have you believe that the hurdles and obstacles that black athletes have had to overcome ended with the integration in baseball with Jackie Robinson. At that time, black baseball players were supposed to be enjoying the spoils of their civil rights accomplishment. The reality is that Jackie Robinson became baseball’s first African American player in 1947; the last baseball team to integrate was the Boston Red Sox in 1959. To play the sport they love, whether baseball, basketball or football, black athletes in the past had to battle prejudiced owners and fans just to prove themselves before they even stepped on the field. Today, black quarterbacks have to deal with unyielding stereotypes that they are not adequate enough and not smart enough to play in their exalted positions.
Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, Vince Young—all have been disrespected and undermined for playing the quarterback position in the NFL. They are playing a position that is the most heralded, most exalted and most celebrated in football. The leader of the football team is the quarterback, and the quarterback has always been white.
It wasn’t until Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins that the black quarterback gained a little more credibility. Still, despite the efforts of Williams and Randall Cunningham, only one black QB is in the Hall of Fame: Warren Moon, the most underrated QB ever.
Being a black quarterback is a paradoxical occupation. If a black QB remains a pocket passer and doesn’t scramble, he is ignored or forgotten. The black, pocket passer is respected but never celebrated or admired. He just falls in line behind everyone else. Warren Moon held the records for most passing yards, most completions, and most touchdowns for a professional football player until Brett Favre broke those. Not Dan Marino, not John Elway, and not Joe Montana. Moon’s name is rarely mentioned among the ranks of other Hall of Fame quarterbacks, despite all of his accolades.
The other type of black quarterback is the exciting, scrambling, position revolutionizing quarterback the likes of which the NFL had never seen before. However, this new black QB prototype isn’t met with as much respect as the pocket passer because of the questions about his accuracy, intelligence and leadership. Those questions dogged Vince Young until he was ousted from Tennessee and Donovan McNabb before him in Philadelphia and Washington.
Michael Vick recently complained about not getting the same calls as other franchise quarterbacks get when they get roughed up. If Michael Vick gets hit after hit, well after the ball is out of his hands, no whistle is blown. Whereas if a white quarterback was hit like Vick was, a 15 yard penalty would be charged to the defense, described as “roughing the quarterback.” With so many new rules set in place to protect quarterbacks, why are QBs like Vick still getting slammed into the turf without penalty?
What does a black quarterback have to do to gain respect in the NFL? Cam Newton may be the best cross between pocket passer and black scrambling quarterback we have seen (thanks to his mentor Warren Moon). It may just very well be Newton who bridges the gap between black and white QBs. Still, Newton, Vick and others like him will have to face a new battle their predecessors never did: the plight of the modern era black quarterback in the NFL.