On Sunday, a team with a black starting quarterback won the Super Bowl, for the first time since Doug Williams won with the Redskins in 1988. Although we wrote plenty about Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks, and Kent Babb retraced the quarterback’s background, I don’t remember any instances in our coverage where we specifically labeled Wilson as a black quarterback about to play in the Super Bowl.
A few days later, co-worker David Betancourt asked me about it, and we had a nuanced conversation. I asked him to chime in with his thoughts here, and mine follow:
“My interest in the journey of black quarterbacks started with Super Bowl XXII. It’s the first Super Bowl I ever remember watching (I was 7 years old) and it just happened to include my hometown team (The Washington Redskins) playing for the title against the Denver Broncos, led by one of the league’s great young quarterbacks at the time, John Elway. When the Broncos scored on the first play of the game, despite my at-the-time-limited football knowledge, I remember thinking, “We’re going to get destroyed.”
Then a funny thing happened. Actually, Doug Williams happened. Super Bowl history happened. Washington scored 42 straight points, Williams was named MVP and the rest was black history in the making, which is how my family explained it to me.
I watched the game with my mother, grandmother and two aunts, all of whom are black. I couldn’t help but notice how deflated the atmosphere was when Denver went up, 10-0. But then, as Washington put on an offensive onslaught never before seen at the time in the Super Bowl, I heard screams. I saw women jump up and down like little kids. I had never seen them act that way towards a football game before and I finally asked my mother what the big deal was.
“A black quarterback is going to win the Super Bowl. This is history,” she said to me.
Those words stuck with me as my mother, grandmother and I were driving through Washington (a majority black city at the time) after the game. People were partying, swinging from street lights. Car horns were honking. Yes, Washington had won, but this was about Williams.
As the years went by, I’d watch my mother root for the Eagles whenever they played Washington (“I’m rooting for Randall,” she’d always say.) Then as I got older, I started reading between the lines a little bit. Whenever black quarterbacks were mentioned I sometimes heard key words like “scrambler,” “athletic,” “not accurate.” I saw black quarterbacks in college not get drafted or asked to change positions. Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward went to play basketball for the New York Knicks.
But when Russell Wilson was leading a dominant team with realistic title hopes, I said to myself, “He could be the first since Doug,” (although I was hoping it would be RGIII) and he was. But then something happened. The Seahawks won the Super Bowl and no one said anything about it. Not even Wilson. I wondered if the subject wasn’t getting the attention it deserved. Then I started asking myself questions. Is this not a big deal anymore? It’s 2014 not 1988. If Wilson isn’t making a point of saying anything, do I have a right trying to make historic points? Had I watched Super Bowl XXII with my father (who was at home recording the game, but is not black), would I have even cared about the subject?
I decided that Wilson’s victory, and the lack of mentioning him being the second ever since Williams to win it all, was just as much as a victory as Williams had back in 1988. A quarterbacks’ skin color isn’t a big deal anymore. Teams just want to win now. And they’ll put under center whoever they think gives them the best chance to win. That’s the victory worth celebrating.
That’s closer to where I stand.
Williams quarterbacked the Redskins to a championship in Jan. 1988. There were pioneers before him, such as the Rams’ James Harris, but around the time Williams stood victorious with Washington after a Super Bowl, the idea of black players leading the team and playing the game’s most important position was beginning to seem less taboo.
Randall Cunningham captivated the league, and later won an MVP award, in the 1990s. Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair, Daunte Culpepper and Michael Vick were among the NFL’s best quarterbacks of the late ’90s and early 2000s, but those weren’t the only players who mattered. Rodney Peete and Byron Leftwich bucked the stereotype that black quarterbacks all had dynamic athleticism. There are black career backups, like Charlie Batch and Tarvaris Jackson, and high-profile busts, like JaMarcus Russell and Akili Smith. Black quarterbacks, quite literally, could do anything white quarterbacks could do – be pocket passers, win Super Bowls, fail miserably.
In 2013, the Redskins’ Robert Griffin III was joined by Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and Colin Kapernick among the game’s elite young quarterbacks. They are frequently judged against their peers – Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton, Ryan Tannehill, Nick Foles – white quarterbacks who are similar because of their draft position and statistics.
There are certainly still prejudices that seep through in the language of writers and broadcasters, like using “athletic quarterback” to describe any passer whose skin is brown, as though white quarterbacks are unathletic. But for the most part, we live in a time where we judge quarterbacks by how they play, how they handle themselves with the media, where they were drafted and how much they make. The same way we judge all quarterbacks.
It’s also a time, 2014, where the firsts are in the rear-view mirror; Williams’s accomplishment by 26 years. Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith coached against each other in the Super Bowl in 2007, and two years later, Mike Tomlin’s Steelers won a Super Bowl, the milestones for black coaches.
In a time when the U.S. president, the most famous astrophysicist and the chairman of the board of directors at Microsoft are black or biracial, it seems unnatural to attach a qualifier to Russell Wilson’s job title, as though we should be surprised that a black quarterback can lead a team to a Super Bowl win. Perhaps just by mentioning it, we’ve already perpetuated the stereotype.
I also posed the question to Mike Jones and Brandon Parker, in this form:
A black quarterback won the Super Bowl on Sunday, and we didn’t mention it. Is that significant, and if so, why?
Here’s Mike’s reply:
“Wilson becoming the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl since Williams is certainly significant. But I think what’s more significant is that it didn’t draw nearly as much mention as it would have years ago.
Williams’s accomplishment was discussed in both 2000 and 2005 when McNair and McNabb were each trying to lead their teams to Super Bowl victories. But there was little to no mention of the feat leading up to Wilson’s Super Bowl appearance, and I only heard it mentioned in passing the day after he helped his team to a blowout victory, coincidentally against the same franchise that Williams and the Redskins defeated. I think this represents change, and even growth, in our society and in the NFL. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, you might note in your mind ‘Oh, look. That a team had a black quarterback.’ Now, four of the brightest young quarterbacks – Wilson, Newton, Griffin and Kaepernick – are all black, and it’s not discussed at length.
Unlike the old days when a black quarterback prospect might have been forced to switch to defensive back, running back or wide receiver, we see teams taking advantage of the athleticism that these young quarterbacks boast, and offenses are tailored to their strengths. All of these young stars would rather be thought of as quarterbacks, not “black quarterbacks,” and the minimal attention that Wilson received for breaking the post-Williams drought proves that he and his counterparts demonstrate this progress.”
“My first notion is to say this is a good thing, that in the constant strive to reach Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a world that focuses more on one’s character than his or her skin color, the lack of attention given to Wilson’s race is a step in the right direction.
But in the context of football, I think it should have been mentioned.
Twenty-six years had passed between Williams’s Super Bowl victory and Wilson’s, long enough for some to undoubtedly view Williams’s feat as a blip on the radar.
During some weeks of this past season, as many as nine black quarterbacks started for the NFL’s 32 teams. But with one Super Bowl victory among them, the challenge still loomed for someone in this group to prove that they are equipped for this “cerebral” position, and that if an African American is going to excel at quarterback, scrambling doesn’t have to be his first instinct.
Coincidentally, Wilson rushed for 26 yards in Super Bowl XLVIII. Like his skin color, the stat did nothing to affect the game’s outcome, but its irony serves as a reminder for progress that, at least in this instance, should have been noted.”
Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Mailbag question” for him to answer it in The Mailbag on Tuesdays.
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