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Proud "Black Quarterback"

The Great Donovan McNabb

by DAVE ZIRIN

We should never pass up the opportunity to point out that Rush Limbaugh is not only a racist pig but, unlike the swine, one of our stupider mammals as well.

This past weekend, as All-Pro quarterback Donovan F. McNabb led the Philadelphia Eagles to their first Super Bowl in 25 years, Limbaugh was undoubtedly chasing oxycontin with Kahlua in a state of utter misery.

Last year, Limbaugh ignited an inferno by wheezing on ESPN’s NFL pre-game show that McNabb was "overrated" because of the "media’s social concern" to see a successful Black quarterback. It was textbook Limbaugh, linking race and performance with a jab at "liberal affirmative action" advancing the "unqualified". The fact that Limbaugh was a paid football announcer for ESPN still boggles the mind. Was G. Gordon Liddy unavailable? David Duke too expensive? Limbaugh was run out of ESPN on a rail after thousands of complaints, but he smirked back to talk radio, more a hero to his minions than ever before.

Yet even Limbaugh had to grudgingly eat crow regarding the Great McNabb on his Monday radio show. The rotund race baiter choked out the words that McNabb might actually be better than he thought–and that he is "much improved" from a year ago. But Rush, in typical fashion, was quick to firmly stand by his original rant–that Black quarterbacks are given a free ride by a liberal media conspiracy that wants at all costs to see them succeed.

Limbaugh’s words bear mention because there is an argument currently afoot that the durable color line– which has in the past kept the NFL quarterback position as "white-only" as a 1950s Greensboro lunch counter–is finally over.

There is merit to this claim. As recently as 1984, there was only one Black QB in the entire league. But this year, Black quarterbacks held more than twenty NFL QB roster spots. Today, Black quarterbacks not only grace almost every roster, but also play every imaginable style. There are speed demons like Michael Vick, and lead-foots like Byron Leftwich. There are aged career back-ups like Jeff Blake and Rodney Peete, and young benchwarmers like David Garrard and Shaun King. There are also frightening talents like McNabb and Daunte Culpepper–players who have the ability and brains to pass their way to football immortality. The sill-sets of the Black QB run the gamut from brilliant to lousy. Yes, Black quarterbacks have earned the right to not only be stars, but also suck as much as white quarterbacks–which is a form of progress.

This ascension of Black quarterbacks carries a social impact that reverberates off the playing field. No athletic position in our society is as esteemed as that of the "field general. Quarterbacks are the heroes, the icons, the cover of the Wheaties Box. Denying Black athletes a chance to compete for this role held a much deeper symbolism about what Blacks could aspire to in our society. The message clearly being sent was that African-Americans just didn’t have the brains or "intestinal fortitude" to truly lead. Every Sunday was a demonstration for the country that while a Black player could run, catch, and jump, the signal-calling–control–was something that required white skin. When Randall Cunningham was drafted in 1984, the first question he was asked by a reporter was, "What makes you think you’re smart enough to read NFL defenses?" This is an ugly history, and much of it seems over.

As James Harris, who was the first Black quarterback to start a playoff game 30 years ago and who is the current Head of Player Personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars, said recently, "They’re not using the word black quarterback any more. They’re now referred to as quarterbacks and that’s the way it should be. You’re judged on your ability. It wasn’t always that way."

This progress should be celebrated. But–as Limbaugh reminds us–all the social implications of being a Black quarterback remain. This history cannot just be tossed into the back of America’s closet, a few shelves up from the nooses and white sheets. If the rise of the Black quarterback is remembered as a period when people in power just "got over" their prejudices, then past crimes become justified and the pioneers who struggled for a shot become forgotten.

It also has implications off the football field. The discrimination dynamic that surrounds the issue of Black leadership on the turf reflects the greater racism that shapes our entire society. Unemployment for African-Americans is more than twice that of whites–hovering between 10-11%. For young blacks under age 21, the rate is more like 33%. More than 1 million Blacks are behind bars, the overwhelming majority held for non-violent offenses. In a society that strains to blame the victim, the current danger is that Black quarterbacks will be pointed to–as the maxim is repeated, "If they made it why can’t you?" This is what we will get instead of the real history–that the door wasn’t opened for Black quarterbacks, but was broken down.

To preserve this history of struggle, pioneering Black QB’s Harris, Doug Williams and Warren Moon started an organization called the Field Generals [fieldgenerals.com], dedicated to teaching and preserving the history of the African American quarterback. They are striving to preserve stories like the one of former Denver Broncos QB Marlon Briscoe, who negotiated his own contract and stipulated that he be given a three-day tryout as quarterback before they forced him to convert to defensive back. Briscoe nailed his tryout and set a Denver QB record when he threw 14 touchdowns as a rookie. During the following summer, however, Briscoe discovered the team was having QB meetings without him and he was replaced and made a receiver. Both the struggles of people like Briscoe, and the persistence of people like Limbaugh put the onus on us not to forget this history, but embrace it.

Two other people who believe this shouldn’t be a taboo topic are Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick. Last weekend they became the first pair of Black quarterbacks to square off in a conference championship game. Unprompted by reporters, as soon as he sat down for a press conference, McNabb said, "It’s a special weekend for myself, a special weekend for [Vick] because this is an opportunity for obviously an African-American quarterback to represent in the Super Bowl."

Vick echoed McNabb. "It shows how far we’ve come," Vick said. "It shows how far the league has come. This game does mean a lot to me. Like Donovan said, it’s a big step for all of us."

But if Limbaugh and his ilk have taught us anything, it’s that big steps forward can be erased if we don’t treasure the journey traveled and the struggle waged to take them. As a wise man said, "There is no sense standing on the shoulders of giants we refuse to open our eyes."

We should all look forward to the day when quarterbacks can be just quarterbacks and not seen as "Black quarterbacks." But as long as institutional racism persists, we should not only recognize the accomplishments of Black QBs, but also treasure and celebrate their history as one of triumph in the face of seemingly intractable opposition.

DAVE ZIRIN’s new book "What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States will be in stores in June 2005. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com. Contact him at editor@pgpost.com.