January 7, 2001



As the world grows up, it is our duty to become more enlightened. In Europe, they no longer believe the Earth is flat. In Asia, they no longer cut off heads to save face. In America, racial profiling no longer shrouds the football field.

And we no longer believe that a Black man can't play quarterback.

"It was the stereotype that Black quarterbacks weren't well- rounded enough intellectually to run an offense," Arizona State athletic director Gene Smith said. "I'm just so glad to see that go."

Indeed, the barriers of perception have been crumbling for many years, but it has never been more evident than now. Entering the second round of the NFL playoffs, four of the eight remaining teams were led by quarterbacks of African-American descent (Tennessee's Steve McNair, Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper, Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb and New Orleans' Aaron Brooks).

Of the 63 Division I teams eligible for the Bowl Championship Series, 20 put their faith in minority quarterbacks. And one-third of the teams in the SEC -- a conference from the Deep South once infamous for its racial intolerance, a conference that didn't become fully integrated until 1971 -- were guided by Black quarterbacks in the 2000 season.

"The rise of the Black quarterbacks is kind of tied into the rise of the Black player in general," former Notre Dame and Arizona State coach Dan Devine said. "But when it came to the quarterback position, there was definitely a terrible perception, a feeling that a Black quarterback just couldn't hack it. I know. I lived through it."

It is certainly a sign of progress that, entering the 21st century, Black quarterbacks have begun to dominate their position. But is it all related to the death of bias or just the changing dynamics of the position? Football is very cyclical in nature, and the past decade has been marked by numerous improvements on defense. The speed and agility of linemen and linebackers have gone off the charts. The most innovative schemes have been centered on zone blitzes and other ways to pressure the quarterback. And suddenly, the classic drop-back passer has become extinct, replaced by players who can elude the rush and run with the football.

"Black or White, it doesn't matter," Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis said. "You need a quarterback who can move."

Biological factor?

But as the criteria of the position have changed, so has its color. And this leads us down a volatile path full of dangerous stereotypes. In his controversial book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It, author Jon Entine examined reams of data and concluded that people of African-American descent have a biological advantage in certain sports.

For example, before the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, all of the 32 male finalists in the 100-meter dash in the previous 16 years were of West African descent. The statistical likelihood of that happening based on population alone is zero. Those who discredit the view cling to the argument that any advantage is purely sociological, that Black superiority in certain sports is a result of economic disadvantage, that Blacks possess a higher degree of motivation to succeed.

Entine is right about one thing: It's a subject avoided like the plague. And noted sociologist Harry Edwards once explained why the idea of athletic superiority is a topic that no one wants to broach.

"By asserting that Blacks are physically superior reinforces some old stereotypes long held about Afro-Americans," Edwards said. "To wit, that they are little removed from the apes in their evolutionary development ... It opens the door for at least an informal acceptance that Whites are intellectually superior to Blacks."

This has always been the biggest hurdle facing the Black quarterback.

"It's just like when (former Kentucky basketball coach) Adolph Rupp said you couldn't win an NCAA title with a Black point guard," Devine said. "I remember when teams would use the 'T' formation, and every running back was Black. Except the quarterback was always White, and no one questioned why. It was never talked about publicly. It was a deep, dark secret."

It wasn't until the early 1970s that the NFL featured an every- down quarterback of African-American descent. That was the Los Angeles Rams' James Harris, who was the No. 2 passer in the league in 1974 and MVP of the Pro Bowl. About the same time, the late Joe Gilliam and Terry Bradshaw embarked on the most famous quarterback controversy in history, one rife with racial undertones (Gilliam was Black) and irony (Bradshaw was the one considered short on intelligence).

But even then, the acceptance was slow in coming. It wasn't until Doug Williams threw four touchdown passes in the 1988 Super Bowl that the perceptions really started to change. And even then, in the days leading up to the big game, Williams endured the kind of scrutiny that went beyond the lines.

"Doug, how long have you been a Black quarterback?" a reporter asked.

"All my life," Williams responded, and the exchange seemed to symbolize everything.

But as the 2000 football season comes to a close, the doors are opening like never before.

More Black backups, too

"Only a few years ago, it was guys like (Warren) Moon, (Randall) Cunningham, Rodney Peete," Harris told ESPN. "Those guys were starters, but there weren't many backups. You can best realize the acceptance by seeing guys that are backing up and playing third-team. There are quite a few."

The 1999 NFL draft might've been the best ever for Black quarterbacks, a bounty including McNabb, Culpepper, Akili Smith, Michael Bishop and Shaun King. When you count the starters and reserves, more than 20 African-American quarterbacks are now playing in the NFL. And everyone is eagerly awaiting the arrival of Michael Vick, the quarterback phenomenon from Virginia Tech.

When it comes to football and its most glamorous position, it's nice to know the game has finally become color-blind.

Copyright 2001 Phoenix Newspapers, Inc.