Quarterbacked (sorry) by Greg Howard, Deadspin has posted an extraordinary compilation of – as near as they can tell – virtually every black quarterback to ever have been drafted by or played for an NFL team. It combines fascinating historical detail about the early history of the NFL, beautiful writing and incisive and brilliant analysis about the complicated and evolving ways in which race gets discussed through sports.
It’s long and I can’t do it justice in a post. It was a treat to learn about early pioneers like Fritz Pollard, the first black quarterback in the NFL as well as its first black head coach, back in the 1920s and Joe Lillard, in some ways, the Moses “Fleet” Walker of the NFL, drummed out of the league in 1933, after which future Washington owner George Preston Marshall “brokered a league-wide ban on black players”; to remember the first cohort of black quarterbacks to get a real shot at regular jobs in the NFL in the 1970s and 1980s, including James Harris, Vince Evans and, of course, Doug Williams, guys I remember well as a young fan; to the supremely talented and in some ways ahead of his time Randall Cunningham (if you’re a Giants fan, memories of him still make you shake your head); to the man who would (except that he ultimately self-destructed) change the face of football forever – Michael Vick; to the current crop of greats and potential future greats – Wilson, Newton, Kaepernick and RGIII.
Howard has lots of brilliant things to say, but I just wanted to pull out some of what he wrote about Cam Newton, because it puts so well the conflicted, unsettled ways we still tend to talk about black athletes who aren’t sufficiently demur. Howard notes that the new narrative about Newton is that he started winning because he learned some badly needed humility, which he lacked coming out of college and in his first couple of years in the pros. Howard recounts a much-discussed pre-draft analysis of Newton in 2011 that simply trashed him – “very disingenuous,” “selfish” “fake smile,” “me-first make-up,” – in the context of the absurd reading of entrails that is the NFL’s hunt for characterological evidence of future greatness (or failure).
Then Howard writes:
Things get particularly dicey for black quarterbacks, for whom the old assumptions about black athletes’ innate anti-social tendencies run up against the football culture’s demand that quarterbacks be flinty-eyed leaders of men. If you’ve read this far, you’ll have noticed that the things Nawrocki said about Newton were the same things people said about Joe Lillard and Joe Gilliam and Randall Cunningham and any number of other black quarterbacks. This is a very old game, and the fact that players with supposedly bad attitudes have succeeded and players with supposedly good attitudes have failed doesn’t seem to prevent people from playing it still. Newton should’ve demonstrated the folly of this particular line of analysis once and for all. And yet here we are: Cam Newton, who won a freaking national championship in college, is a winner now because he learned some manners, according to ESPN.
All in all, amazing work.