September 12, 2004
THE BLACK QB COMPARISON
Getting people to talk is problematic
By Chris Harry and Charles Robinson
Arizona Cardinals Coach Dennis Green was strolling through a sun-splashed courtyard at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach last spring. An interview session with NFL writers had ended, and Green was accommodating enough to remain for another question -- one with a sociological slant, he was warned.
Several seconds later, after being asked his theory of why white tailbacks had gone the way of the dodo bird, Green was wishing he had made it to the elevator. Preferably one in Phoenix.
"I just think what you need is a guy with some size, some power and who can run fast," Green began. "I don't see why he couldn't be really good, because . . ."
"Well, the thing about it . . ."
He paused again.
"You know what?" Green said. "I don't know if I can deal with those kinds of questions. I guess when you wanted to know if you could ask me a sociological question, I should have said no. So I'll pass."
"Nope, that's it."
Then he was gone.
Like the white tailback.
In this day and age, no one can blame Green for backing away from racially sensitive issues. Little good can come from non-experts providing unscientific theories. Just ask Paul Hornung and Rush Limbaugh.
"Those who choose to talk about issues of race put themselves at risk," says Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at UCF. "If you say the wrong thing, it's an explosive situation for your career."
Hornung was removed from his post as Notre Dame's color analyst this spring for suggesting his alma mater needed to recruit more blacks to be competitive. Limbaugh was forced to resign by ESPN last fall just a month into his gig as a studio analyst for saying Philadelphia Eagles star Donovan McNabb was overrated by a media "desirous" of a black quarterback to succeed.
Overnight, Hornung and Limbaugh joined Al Campanis, Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, John Rocker, Fuzzy Zoeller, Marge Schott, Bill Singer and Dan Issel in politically incorrect sports infamy.
"There's no upside in talking about this in our society," says Jon Entine, author of the book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It . "The reason we're afraid to talk about it is because this country has a sorry history linking pseudo-science to race. We make all kinds of judgments about racial differences that don't hold true."
Some are verbalized (with ramifications). Others aren't.
Four NFL general managers -- all white -- declined to be interviewed for this story.
"You can figure out why," one reasons.
John Riggins, the last white running back to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, declined comment. One of 17 players in league history to rush for more than 10,000 yards -- and the only white player of the bunch -- Riggins was a fearless football player but obviously was shaken by the subject matter.
"Considering John is in the public eye more and more, we have decided not to comment on this issue," the PR firm representing Riggins said in a statement.
Auburn tailback Tre Smith rushed for 4,850 yards at Venice High, was the state's Class 6A player of the year as a junior in 2000 and gained 126 yards in a victory over Alabama as a true freshman in 2002. He is No. 3 on the Tigers' depth chart and in line to be the starter next season. He was contacted for this story but declined to comment.
"We live in a very P.C. environment," says George Wilson, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Miami. "There's a whole range of issues with race that people don't want to deal with, because they don't have to deal with it."
Not that there's much to talk about when it comes to white tailbacks, anyway.
'I've never thought about it'
The NFL, the signature of sports popularity in America, has gone 18 years without a white running back gaining 1,000 yards in a season. It has been 30 years since a white tailback was taken in the first round of the draft. It has been 42 years since a white led the league in rushing. And of the 117 NCAA Division I-A programs, only two (Nevada, with Chance Kretschmer, and UAB, with Dan Burks) list a white tailback as a projected starter for this season.
"Wow!" Cardinals Vice President of Football Operations Rod Graves, who is black, says when informed of the numbers. "I'm a little surprised and taken aback by that."
"Are you serious?" asks Tampa Bay personnel executive Doug Williams, who in 1988 made history as the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl. "You've hit me from a totally different perspective."
"I really don't have a theory on that," says Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom, who this year became the first black head football coach in the 70-year history of the Southeastern Conference after a 17-year stint mostly as a running backs coach in the NFL. "To be honest with you, I've never thought about it."
With so few having bothered to notice, the virtual extinction of white tailbacks hardly can be considered controversial. Remember the outcry over the scarcity of black quarterbacks in the NFL? That color barrier eventually came crashing down.
Has another been built unnoticed? For years, coaches viewed quarterback, center, middle linebacker and safety as intelligence and leadership positions.
Or as New York Jets Coach Herman Edwards recalls, "It was minority players over there, 'thinking guys' over here."
Blacks fought for years to battle the stereotype that kept them from playing those "other" positions. While pioneers such as Willie Lanier (middle linebacker), Dwight Stephenson (center) and Ken Houston (safety) paved the way at their respective spots, quarterback was much slower to evolve from its racial perceptions. In time, trailblazers such as James Harris, Williams, Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham set the table for today's influx of black quarterbacks. In the past two seasons, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper and Michael Vick have been selected to the Pro Bowl.
This season, six blacks will start in the NFL at quarterback, with another eight listed as second-teamers. All told, 14 black quarterbacks are running either the first or second team out of a possible 64 leaguewide.
The number of white tailbacks on active rosters?
"It all goes back to the coaches in Pop Warner and little leagues and junior high and high schools that channeled and stocked players by race. Once you set that in motion -- probably 30-40 years ago -- it was social inertia," says Joe Feagin, professor of sociology at Texas A&M. "This is not an institutional pattern. It's not about bigots here and there. It's about a system that's been in place long before you and I were born."
"You know there are good young white kids out there, but what happens to them?" Kansas City Coach Dick Vermeil asks. "Maybe they get discouraged early and move in a different direction."
'If' is the key word
The few front-office types who consented to be interviewed for this story agreed that if there were a white back good enough, he'd be suiting up on Sundays.
"The reason we have African-Americans playing quarterback and center is because we're seeing them in high schools and colleges. That's our feeder system," says Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome, who in 2002 became the first black GM in NFL history. "I don't want to start profiling people, but the pool of players coming into the league is less. That's totally opposite of what it is with quarterbacks."
In the past five NFL drafts, there have been 116 backs selected. Just two of them have been white tailbacks: Luke Staley (a seventh-rounder by Detroit out of BYU in 2001) and Brock Forsey (a sixth-rounder by Chicago out of Boise State in 2003). In the past five drafts, 12 black quarterbacks have been selected.
Comparisons to the days when a Jim Crow mentality held back blacks are resisted by those involved in the game -- those who will talk about it, that is. Croom, for example. In 1973, he became the first black to start at center for Bear Bryant at Alabama.
"There is no mystique or anybody saying 'a white guy cannot play tailback because ...," Croom says. "For the black quarterback, it was you were mentally incapable of doing it. That was the reason for being denied the opportunity."
Lapchick, who has spent his career studying the overlap of sport and its impact on society, was startled by the timeline of erosion attached to white running backs.
"I had a pretty good idea the direction was clear," he says. "I had no idea it was that overwhelming." Yet in terms of comparing that trend to what existed with black quarterbacks, Lapchick says a "substantive difference" exists.
"In the case of quarterbacks, there was an historic denial of opportunity," he says. "The gap was amplified by some African-American quarterbacks opting for another position, because they saw no chance for advancement. White running backs might do that on their own, but I do not think they are -- as African-American quarterbacks surely were -- systematically shut out of such opportunities."
He used Jeremy Wariner, the white sprinter who won the 400 meters at the Summer Olympics last month, as an example.
"If a white [running back] came along," Lapchick says, "you could be sure the welcome mat would be there."
Key word in that sentence: If.
"The difference is there was a time when all the quarterbacks and all the running backs were white," Williams says. "I don't think there's ever going to be a time when all the quarterbacks and all the running backs are black."
A quarter-century ago, the NFL was 70 percent white and 30 percent black. Now, it's 70 percent black and 30 percent white. Only time can answer Williams' question. For now, nobody else seems to want to.