September 1999

Dark Thoughts

by Jon Entine

If the NFL is 70 percent African-American, why are there so few black quarterbacks? And while we're at it, why is the NFL 70 percent African-American? And why are we afraid to talk about it?

"Akili", says Cincinnati's number one draft choice Akili Smith, "is Swahili. It means 'creativity, power, intelligence.'" There is some irony in this, for Smith's intelligence has been a controversial subject. He had put up phenomenal numbers as a late-blooming starter at the University of Oregon and was believed to be the most talented runner-passer going into last April's draft. Rifle arm. Explosive. Elusive. Can improvise and make things happen when the play breaks down. The scouting reports were universally glowing, save one caveat. He was considered "raw," a common characterization of African-American quarterbacks. With the average NFL playbook resembling the Manhattan Yellow Pages, there were questions about whether he could master the complex schemes that separate college prospects from NFL standouts. In other words, how intelligent a quarterback could he be? No one is looking for a Rhodes scholar, but coaches at the pro level don't have the luxury of taking on projects, especially number one draft picks.

Intelligence, whatever that means in football, is one of the great mysteries of the game. When linked to the words "black quarterback," it historically has been a huge, if rarely voiced controversy. Prior to this year, only three black quarterbacks in the history of the NFL had been drafted in the first round, none among the top few picks. But Smith was expected to go high, along with two other African-Americans, Donovan McNabb and Duante Culpepper. That is, until the Wonderlic, the twelve-minute intelligence exam all prospects take. Smith scored in the low teens out of 50, sending his stock plunging.

It ended up being only a temporary scare. After he refocused—Smith's college coach, among others, had praised him for his football smarts and maturity—he scored a 37 on his second crack at the Wonderlic, restoring his blue-chip status. He might have gone number one if he had struck a predraft deal with Cleveland but ended up being selected third. Even though the consensus was that Tim Couch had less mobility, a softer arm and less "upside potential" than the top black quarterbacks, the Browns selected him first. He was the "safe" choice. Philadelphia took McNabb second, and Culpepper went to Minnesota at number eleven. Out of thirteen quarterbacks drafted overall, six were African-American.

That's progress, but set against a pretty pathetic present. Of the more than ninety quarterbacks on team rosters at the end of last season, only ten were black—a proportion roughly in line with African-Americans' part of the U.S. population, 13 percent, but wildly out of proportion with the racial breakdown of the NFL, where more than 70 percent of the players are black. "I'm just happy that a lot of us in [the first round] are African-Americans, so we can show the rest of the world that we are smart enough to play," Smith said after the draft.

Why have African-American athletes dominated in almost every position in football and yet been so meagerly represented in the game's most critical position? That suggests another prickly question: Why in America's highest profile sports are blacks so overrepresented? About one-third of Major League Baseball's players and a higher proportion of its top players are black. NBA rosters are 77 percent African-American. Every major world record in running, from the one hundred meters to the marathon, is in the hands of an athlete of African descent.

Trying to answer what may lie behind such statistics runs up against one of our culture's greatest taboos: asking whether there are innate differences between races. It's a question customarily dismissed outright as racist. After all, aren't we all born equal, blank slates for culture and the environment to write on? The preferred explanation is sociological: For various cultural reasons, there is a dearth of opportunities elsewhere for African-Americans. Thus, rather than finding careers as, say, businessmen, lawyers or teachers, African-Americans are channeled into sports, which is further encouraged by the images, and earnings power, of superstars such as Michael Jordan, Randy Moss and Carl Lewis.

The problem is that "nurture" just doesn't explain the overwhelming dimensions of African-American athletic dominance. Many, if not most, of the top athletes—at least the ones who will talk openly—believe that nature may play a decisive roll. "Blacks, physically, in many cases, are made better," Carl Lewis told me before he retired after piling up nine Olympic gold medals. That's the same Carl Lewis who, by his own estimation, worked out eight hours—per week, not per day, in the run-up to winning four gold medals at the 1984 Olympics.

Such boasts are anathema to some. "The whole secret of racism," says Brooks Johnson, an African-American who is a former track coach at Stanford University and with the US women's Olympic track team, "is to convince black people that they're superior in some areas like sports and therefore by definition must be inferior in other areas. It's the belief that blacks are naturally lazy, so anything they get they don't get from hard work, they get because God just gave them the right gene." Lewis's conviction that he is a breed apart is not an expression of black pride, Johnson believes, but a simplistic stereotype so powerful that even successful blacks have come to mimic a racist party line. "I've been an Olympic coach twice," Johnson says. "I've had Olympic champions, world-record holders. The big challenge left for me is to put these silly notions to rest. To rub their noses in it. I want to find the white Carl Lewis. That's my mission."

Johnson hasn't found his great white sprinter, and it is doubtful he ever will. Dozens of blacks have broken the ten-second barrier in the one hundred meters—Lewis did it fifteen times—but no white or, for that matter, no person of any other racial group has ever done so. Johnson's frustration is understandable. "The growing black domination of the most popular American sports is twisted and offered as 'proof' that 'physically superior' blacks are less intelligent than whites," says Harry Edwards, an African-American sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley and a part-time consultant for the San Francisco 49ers. For more than thirty years, Edwards has challenged what he calls the "myth" of black athletic superiority. Black athletes are prey to a fallacious logic that runs something like this: Physical ability and smarts are inversely proportional, and since blacks are more "naturally" athletic than whites, blacks are less intelligent.

The relationship between athletic ability and intelligence used to be just the opposite. The classical Greco-Roman ideal, holding that athletic talent is an index of intellectual robustness, was long a part of European culture. But Americans have fostered the "dumb jock" stereotype, a stock figure from a kind of twentieth-century commedia dell'arte. The stereotype is even more perverse when race and hundreds of years of European colonialism and American slavery are thrown into the equation. In the nineteenth century, white Europeans were enraptured by pseudosciences such as phrenology and craniology. They rated racial and ethic groups according to all kinds of measurements, such as skull size, that they claimed proved, not surprisingly, that white Europeans were intellectually superior. Jews, blacks and other minorities were the targets of the most egregious generalizations, usually associated with physical characteristics and prowess. Blacks were considered animal-like, short on character and even frail.

In 1908 Jack Johnson, often thought of as the best boxer in history, faced down this stereotype when he became the first black to fight for and win the heavyweight championship, defeating Tommy Burns. Two years later, after Johnson demolished "the Great White Hope," Jim Jeffries, The Los Angeles Daily Times published an editorial, "A Word to the Black Man," to note Johnson's victory.

The white man's mental supremacy is fully established and for the present cannot be taken from him... his superiority does not rest on any huge bulk of muscle, but on brain development that has weighed words and charmed the most subtle secrets from the heart of nature... Remember, you have done nothing at all. You are the same member of society you were last week. You are on no higher plane, deserve no new consideration, and you will get none.

Athletic achievement has always been a double-edged sword for African-Americans. When an athlete lost a contest, it confirmed racist notions that blacks were an inferior race, both intellectually and physically. But winning only reinforced the formulation that blacks were less evolved. Success was credited to their "natural" abilities and physiology, not, as with white athletes to their dedication or skill. "Behind that prejudice," says Edwards, "is the unstated belief that blacks are somehow closer to beasts and animals."

Edwards, an activist and the mastermind behind the Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, was one of the first to publicize the uncomfortable reality of "racial profiling" in sports, a phenomenon also known as "stacking." According to a slew of studies churned out in the '60s and '70s, the predominance of blacks in "reactive" positions, such as running back, receiver and defensive back, was based on what many sociologists contend is a racist assumption that blacks have innate abilities. At that time in pro football, blacks still accounted for only about 8 percent of middle linebackers, centers and guards, supposedly "strategic" positions that presumably demanded decision-making skills. There was not one black at the most critical leadership position, quarterback.

Black college quarterbacks were either ignored altogether or, when an opportunity came, got one shot. When they didn't become stars overnight—and quarterbacks rarely do, black or white—they were shifted to traditionally "black positions," where their "natural athleticism" would serve them better. "As a black QB, they are constantly trying to switch you to another position," said James Harris in 1974, when he was the lone black NFL starting quarterback, playing for the Los Angeles Rams. His success was short-lived. "Blacks get two types of opportunities to play quarterback in the NFL: a chance and a 'nigger' chance," says Harris. One mistake and you were gone. "Anyone who thinks the selection of three blacks signals that racist stereotypes about the intellectually inferior black man have disappeared," says Edwards, "is either hopelessly naive or subversively disingenuous."

The so-called inverse relationship between athletic ability and intelligence—the belief that elite athletes, who are increasingly African-American, necessarily have lower IQs—is supported neither by any data nor by logic. What precisely constitutes "thinking" or intelligence is always a knotty question, anyway, and in a not particularly self-critical medium like athletics, it is even more difficult to decipher. Charles F. Wonderlic Jr., whose firm profiles millions of potential employees in almost every imaginable field, including professional football, takes pains to point out that his IQ test "is just a tool." "It's meant to be a red flag to spot trainability problems," he says. "This is not meant to be a ranking system. The test is a valid predictor of learning potential."

Do coaches actually rely on these scores? "The ability to win, delivering in the clutch, cannot be measured with a pen and paper," says Tony Dungy of the Tampa Bay Bucs, one of three African-American head coaches in the NFL. "We have had some really 'Wonderlic smart' guys who turned out to be 'football dumb.'" Although he's dubious of their value, Dungy, like most of his colleagues, still reviews every score. Scores are confidential, but reportedly this year's top score was 43, just a few points better than Smith's retested 37. Steve Young, who has a law degree, got a 33; Troy Aikman, 29. Dan Marino tanked on the test, and he's certainly managed to scrape by. But for an African-American trying to crack the mostly white fraternity of professional quarterbacking, a bad score can be a career killer.

The Minnesota Vikings' Dennis Green, one of the league's two other African-American head coaches, believes such tests are of little value except to maintain the status quo, which has historically meant few opportunities at quarterback for blacks. "I never pay any attention to them," he says. "I don't even look at the score. The only thing I'm concerned about is how the guy has performed of the field." Are the old prejudices finally changing? " Yes, it's getting better, but look at all the great young quarterbacks who never even got a chance. Donovan McNabb may get his shot, but what about Don McPherson a decade ago? They both went to Syracuse. There's not a stone's throw of difference in what they accomplished, yet McPherson never got much of a look."

McNabb broke almost all the passing records at Syracuse; McPherson led the Orangemen to an 11-0-1 season in 1987, finishing ahead of Troy Aikman as college's top-ranked passer. Based on the prototype at the time, McPherson was considered a risk, standing just six feet and weighing 190; McNabb is bigger, at six-two, 230, and just as mobile. Yet McPherson can't shake the belief that race played a part in his stunted career. At the East-West Shrine game, McPherson was grilled by an NFL scout: "This guy—I don't even know what team he was from—says to me, 'Do you really want to play quarterback?' Remember, I had been a quarterback since I was in grade school." McPherson lets out a sigh, clearly exasperated. "Yet I didn't blame him personally. He wasn't looking at individuals. He was just looking at the model, and that wasn't me. I had to send a letter to all twenty-eight teams' general managers stating that if they did not want me to play quarterback, they shouldn't draft me."

Drafted in the sixth round by Philadelphia, McPherson backed up Randall Cunningham for two years without taking a regular-season snap. But he holds no grudges against the Eagles. "Buddy Ryan was one of the few coaches to even give African-Americans a shot." McPherson says. "Most teams would not keep a black on the roster as the backup." When McPherson was released, he drifted to the Canadian Football League, long a refuge for "run and shoot" style African-American quarterbacks who never got a look in the NFL. McPherson lost the intensity for the game, retiring four years later. "I really believed all along that I would get a fair shot, but I was fighting the system. There was so much preparation. I don't want to feel regret. I don't want to feel bitter. But in the end I was completely disrespected. They took my heart out."

Dungy, a college quarterback himself who shifted to defensive back to get a shot in the NFL, says that race certainly has been a factor in weeding our black quarterbacks, "but less and less over the years." It's not fair, he believes, for black quarterbacks to automatically invoke race if they don't make the cut. Like Green, Dungy is in a privileged yet delicate position to talk about race in football. He's been around the game long enough to recognize that the race question is often mediated through other issues. "For a long time, the NFL had a mold that quarterbacks had to fit," he says. "Everyone was looking for a drop-back passer with a cannon arm who was relatively tall. If you didn't fit that mold, black or white, you didn't get much of a look. The few blacks who got a chance, like Doug Williams, fit that prototype." (Williams held his tongue when asked, after putting on the most explosive quarterback performance in Super Bowl history in 1988, "How long have you been a black quarterback?")

White quarterbacks who didn't fit the mold, such as Doug Flutie, didn't get much of a chance, either, and were often forced to try their hand in the CFL. That's changed in recent years. The days when a classic drop-back passer like Joe Kapp, Sonny Jurgensen—or Doug Williams—could sit in the pocket are over. All the coaches are looking for "athleticism"—a word that not too many years ago resonated with racial undertones, including "less intelligent." "That used to be a code word to describe a black quarterback whom a coach wanted to shift to receiver of defensive back" says Green. "Now, with the speed and strength in the game, we all need athletic quarterbacks," he adds. "Every coach is looking for mobility. Good, strong arms that can run. That fits Culpepper, McNabb, Akili Smith, Cade McNown, almost all the top quarterbacks in the draft. It's just not a black-white thing anymore."

So, are we entering a golden age, when racial stereotyping is on the wane? Not according to many top sports sociologists who gathered at a conference last winter in Las Vegas. One of the hot topics was the ongoing crisis of stacking in sports. Don't blacks still dominate at running back, wide receiver and defensive back?

In the midst of a panel discussion, a massive black hand shot up from the rear. Sitting by himself was a man the size of an offensive lineman. "I've been listening to this nonsense going on half an hour," he said. "I've been a coach at Ohio State, and I can tell you that there is no way we would let stacking go on. This is just bull. At Division I or in the pros, to survive coaches have to recruit the best players and damn well better play them at the optimal positions. We don't care if a player is white, black or striped. The pressure to win is immense. If we don't we will be out on our ass."

The sociologists, equally split between blacks and whites, were clearly startled. Maybe the world has changed. Maybe, but it says something of the subject's explosiveness that the onetime Ohio State assistant asked not to be identified. Earl Smith, the head of the sociology department at Wake Forest University, was one African-American scholar willing to take up the challenge. "Maybe he's not wrong," Smith says. "I want to know why every man at the start line of the Olympic one hundred meters is black. Why are there so few or, in some cases, no white running backs? I've looked at the sociological explanations, and they don't convince me. Maybe there are other explanations. Let's look at the science. We have to be willing to go where the evidence takes us."

So what is the evidence? The on-the-field dominance is pretty remarkable, particularly in men's running, where the socioeconomic barriers, including access to expensive equipment and training, are lower. It's the ultimate level playing field, the only sport with participants from every country in the world. In sprinting, 199 out of the top 200 times for the one hundred meters are held by blacks of West African heritage. All thirty-two of the finalists in the last four Olympic man's one-hundred-meter races was of West African descent; the likelihood of that based on world population numbers alone is 1-36.

In endurance running, East Africans, Kenyans in particular, hold more than half the top times at distances from 800 meters to 10,000 meters. Since 1964 Kenyan men have collected thirty-eight Olympic medals, including thirteen gold, a haul exceeded only by the sprint-rich United States, with a population ten times larger. At Seoul in 1988, Kenyan men won the 800-meters, the 1,500-meters, the 3,000-meter steeplechase and the 5,000-meters, along with two silvers and a bronze. Based on population, the chance that this Texas-size country could randomly turn in such a remarkable medal performance is one in 1.6 billion.

These numbers may illustrate the dominance of black athletes, but they do not prove that blacks are better athletes. Moreover, the terms race, black and white are social constructs based on characteristics such as skin color that oversimplify the kaleidoscope of the world's population groups. All the world's fuzzy-edged population groups—and by some accounts, there are dozens or even hundreds—have been shaped by various evolutionary forces. East and West Africans have remarkably different histories and genetic makeups. That may explain why today there are no blacks with a West-African background who are elite runners at distances of 1,500 meters and longer, and why not one East African is considered an elite sprinter.

"But such dominance will never convince those whose minds are made up that genetics plays no role in shaping the racial patterns we see in sports," says University of California anthropologist Vincent Sarich. "When we discuss issues such as race, it pushes buttons and the cortex just shuts down." It's time we open our eyes to the revolution now unfolding in genetics, where all 80,000 genes are being mapped in the Human Genome Project. Scientists have already isolated dozens of population-specific diseases. The same research has spilled over into our understanding of athletes.

There is now expensive and persuasive research, documented in dozens of studies, showing that elite African-American athletes, virtually all of whom trace their ancestry to West Africa, have a distinctive body type, musculature and metabolism when compared with whites. No one questions the data. The issue of contention is whether these differences make a difference on the athletic field, considering the wide variation within each geographic, racial and ethnic population. While some sociologists remain dubious, most scientists are now convinced that, on average, West African—descended blacks draw on a physiological and biomechanical gold mine when it comes to competing in anaerobic sports such as football, basketball and sprinting.

"Differences among athletes of elite caliber are so small," notes the renowned Michigan State physical anthropologist Robert Malina, "that if you have an advantage that might be genetically based, it might be very, very significant. The fraction of a second is the difference between the gold medal and fourth place."

Success in sports is best understood as a biocultural phenomenon. Culture and environment do not determine athletic success; they merely exaggerate existing patterns. Think of genes as the foundation of a house; culture and the environment are essentially the furniture that give a home character and individuality. But while biological differences stretched across an entire population may help explain the trends in who becomes an elite athlete, they say little about the success of any individual athlete.

So where are we? Racism seems less and less an explanation for the domination of so many sports by African-Americans (though it certainly helps explain the relatively smaller number of blacks in "country club" sports). But if racism cannot account for one part of the stacking equation—the predominance of blacks in positions that place a premium on speed and quickness—stereotyping goes a long way toward explaining why, even today, there have been so few blacks at so-called thinking positions, such as quarterback.

"Coaches and the public have expectations, stereotypes, of how good you can be," mused Don McPherson, who currently consults for youth-violence prevention programs. Although he had a bitter experience in his brief professional career, he now believes such prejudices are not just a black-and-white proposition. In his second-to-last year in the game, a dismal 1993 season with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, McPherson found himself being replaced as quarterback in midseason by Bob Torrance, a Canadian quarterback who had started for the University of Calgary. "It created a sensation when Torrance started." McPherson recalls, "No one believed a Canadian could compete with an American quarterback, black or white. 'Could a Canadian college quarterback play in the CFL?'—that was the story line in the media."

"I remember sitting in the stands one day in Winnipeg before his first start, trying to calm his butterflies, and it really hit me hard: Wow, everyone just assumes he fill fail. It brought back all the bad memories. I felt like he knew exactly what it had been like for me, for black quarterbacks trying to make it in the NFL."

Is it any better today? "So much has changed," McPherson says. "African-Americans are benefiting because the type of people making decisions in the NFL has changed, the way the media talks about black quarterbacks has changed, and the position itself requires more athleticism. And more than any thing else, sports is a business. The bottom line is performance."

There is a pause as McPherson reaches for the right words. "It's been a battle fighting the perception that you can't play based on something other than your talent or performance on the field. People didn't want to give you the chance, or even the opportunity to fail. I think that's finally beginning to change. At least I hope so."