Richard G. Carter

Blacks Tear Down the NFL Color Line

The high-profile glamour pusses of professional football are changing. As a result, the nation's good old boys no longer can savor the silly words of that oldie but baddie, "The object of my affections have changed my complexion from white to rosy red..."

With the dramatic rise of black quarterbacks such as Steve McNair (Tennessee Titans), Charlie Batch (Detroit Lions), Kordell Stewart (Pittsburgh Steelers), Ray Lucas (New York Jets), Jeff Blake (New Orleans Saints), Tony Banks (Baltimore Ravens) and the much-traveled Randall Cunningham (Dallas Cowboys), "Big Game America" has a new face.

Add to the mix second-year starting QBs Daunte Culpepper (Minnesota Vikings), Shaun King (Tampa Bay Bucaneers), Donovan McNabb (Philadelphia Eagles) and Akili Smith (Cincinnati Bengals), and it's obvious the ever-popular National Football League never will be the same.

This was dramatically demonstrated in a recent ABC Monday night game when Culpepper and King squared off in a scintillating 30-23 shootout that not even the nonsensical pratings of insufferable Dennis Miller could spoil. Making it even more interesting is that both head coaches are black -- Dennis Green of the Vikes and Tony Dungy of the Bucs.

In addition, most of these guys are very strong, quick on their feet and have great size -- the better to avoid tall, hard-charging defensive linemen and see over their outstretched arms. Culpepper is 6-foot-4 and weighs in at an astonishing 266 lbs.

Indeed, regular playing time granted so many black QB's these days -- with some approaching stardom -- makes the NFL look a lot like black college football. Check it out. There are blacks at virtually even position, including many all-black defensive units. Rosters of many teams are 75 percent black.

The significance of this trend -- especially regarding the so-called "brain" positions -- cannot be understated. Those who have closely followed pro football realize that its mostly white NFL coaches long eschewed using blacks at quarterback, center, guard and middle linebacker, which supposedly require greater intelligence. This has to do with the need to call and change complex plays, signal blocking assignments and set offensive and defensive alignments.

For years, things were so glum for the pro prospects of black QBs that outstanding college signal-callers were converted to defensive backs. Marlin Briscoe -- drafted as a QB -- was even made into a wide receiver. Ironically, he became a big-play star for a couple of teams.

Just how and why did this negative, racist thinking on the part of the NFL hierarchy -- especially its white franchise owners -- come to pass? Why would teams go into a season trying to win games with inferior white athletes, including at the all-important quarterback position?

One school of thought has it that there was a fear too many black players would chase away the game's largely white male fan base. Thus, good athletes who happened to be black were given short shrift. This often included releasing talented and obviously superior players just to maintain the lily-white status quo.

Then came the dawn, at long last.

Major college coaches -- tantalized by wide-open high school football in the deep South and on the West Coast -- changed playbooks to accommodate nifty running and rifle-armed throwing by black QBs their scouts raved about. As a result, football Saturdays became blanketed by nationally televised games in which sensational, multi-talented black field generals lit up the scoreboards.

Fans at most predominantly white colleges didn't care who was on the field as long as they were winning. With black athletes dominating team rosters, college attendance did not decline, it soared. Schools such as Tennessee and Michigan filled 100,000-plus-capacity stadiums. Auburn, Stanford, Penn State, Florida, Ohio State, Louisiana State and Alabama regularly sold out stadiums seating more than 85,000.

The NFL finally got the message. It was a new day. The new breed of franchise owners, obsessed with winning, began to sign the best available talent, regardless of position and race, and pay them big money. And they demanded that their coaches play them -- black or white. Coaches now know they must produce or get fired.

To borrow a popular social expression, professional football at long last became a level playing field. And the results have begun to demonstrate the wisdom of the new, color-blind approach. In 1999, McNair led his Titans into the Super Bowl. Thus, the day will surely come when the head coaches and QBs of both teams in game's biggest showcase will be black.

Yes, the NFL has evolved into he game of its own future. It's a game Fran Tarkenton, Steve Young, Archie Manning and John Elway would love even more if they were still playing. They were among a minority of mobile, white QBs who ran as well as they passed, like black QBs today.

For fans like me, this is nirvana. I'd have never dreamed it in the 1970s listening to Howard Cosell describe the exploits of the black Jefferson Street Joe Gilliam on Monday Night Football. Sadly, he didn't last. But things change. Black QBs are here to stay. Hallelujah!

Richard G. Carter, a freelance writer, is a former columnist with The Milwaukee Journal and the New York Daily News.