1st Black QB matchup in Super Bowl history represents progress, despite NFL’s systemic barriers


This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

By now we all know how horrible Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Joseph Ossai felt after the last-minute penalty that helped propel Kansas City to the Super Bowl.

His out-of-bounds shove to Patrick Mahomes’ back set up Kansas City to hit a game-winning field goal in last Sunday’s AFC championship game, and afterward Ossai sat on the bench crying. Later a teammate named Germaine Pratt, stalking into the Bengals’ locker room, ripped Ossai in a fit of frustration for which he would later apologize.

Maybe we can console Ossai by reminding him that his penalty pushed the whole NFL closer to making history. Kansas City’s last-second field goal clinched the AFC title, and sent them into a Super Bowl showdown against Jalen Hurts and the Philadephia Eagles. It will mark the first time in Super Bowl history that both teams will field a Black starting quarterback.

And why, in 2023, with corporations throwing big money at diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, and the NFL still painting phrases like “End Racism” on end zone turf, does a Black-on-Black quarterback matchup even matter?

Fair question if you’re from the generation that has grown up with Black quarterbacks, a handful of Black head coaches, and even a Black U.S. president. You might think we’re living in the post-racial future Barack Obama’s presidency was supposed to portend.

It’s also fair for CFL fans with long memories to wonder why we should celebrate two Black QBs in a title game at this stage in pro sports history. I have a hazy recollection of Condredge Holloway and the Argos facing Roy Dewalt and the B.C. Lions in the 1983 Grey Cup — mostly I remember my parents shouting at the TV and high-fiving when the Argos won. But the first Grey Cup game to feature two Black quarterbacks actually happened in 1981, when Warren Moon’s Edmonton Eskimos defeated J.C. Watts and the Ottawa Rough Riders.

Some of you are old enough to have seen that one, and to point out, correctly, that the NFL doesn’t deserve a medal for crossing this particular finish line 42 years behind schedule.

Broader context

But the broader context in which Mahomes versus Hurts is taking place makes the matchup worth noting. In the NFL, Black head coaches still face an uphill struggle to get hired and stay on the job. Beyond the league, right-wing media figures and lawmakers have launched a full frontal assault on Black history. 

Last year Michele Tafoya quit her job as a sideline reporter on NBC’s football broadcasts to campaign against the teaching of Critical Race Theory. And last month, Governor Ron DeSantis banned high schools from teaching advanced placement African American Studies in Florida — a state that produces a disproportionate number of pro football players, many of them Black.

So we should celebrate Mahomes versus Hurts because their presence in the same Super Bowl represents progress despite stubborn systemic barriers between Black people and leadership positions in the NFL. Or because every new effort to scrub racism from history books reminds us how important it is to commemorate and honour barrier-breakers like Mahomes and Hurts.

And because their pairing is the culmination of achievements gained in previous generations — from the NFL’s re-integration in 1946, to Doug Williams’s Super Bowl victory in 1988, to Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith meeting in 2006, the Super Bowl’s only all-Black coaching matchup. A stunning development given how few Black head coaches get hired, but understandable given the way Black coaches need to overachieve to stay employed.

Former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith, left, hugs former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy, right, at the end of Super Bowl XLI in Miami on Feb. 4, 2007. (David Duprey/The Associated Press)

Steve Wilks, who is Black, is the latest coach to land on the business end of what looks like a racial double standard. After the Carolina Panthers fired head coach Matt Rhule, Wilks took over on an interim basis, achieving a 6-6 record with a denuded roster. When Carolina hired a permanent head coach, they chose Frank Reich, a white coach fresh off a 3-5-1 start and mid-season dismissal from the Indianapolis Colts. 

Progress in the NFL is both visible and hard to achieve, so taking Mahomes-Hurts as a given ignores the fascinating lessons about race relations that pro football history can teach, and it risks taking all those victories for granted.

We could afford that luxury if racism didn’t still shape lives and careers. But the tight job market for Black head coaches, and the campaign to whitewash American history in schools, hint at how easy it is to backslide from here to the entrenched prejudice that turned standout Black quarterbacks into trailblazers in the first place.

It’s worth remembering how outlandish a two-Black QB Super Bowl would have seemed in 1981, when Moon and Watts met in the Grey Cup. Moon, of course, was a Rose Bowl MVP quarterback at the University of Washington who began his pro career in Canada because NFL teams wanted to make him a tight end. Watts was a similarly decorated quarterback at the University of Oklahoma, who auditioned at several positions — none of them quarterback — after the New York Jets drafted him.

Nine years earlier, Chuck Ealey had a similar story. He went undefeated as a high school quarterback in Portsmouth, Ohio, and at the University of Toledo. Entering the 1972 draft, his agent advised teams to leave him alone if they didn’t plan to play him at quarterback.

They left him alone.

Later that year he became the first Black quarterback to win a Grey Cup.

A male football quarterback wearing number 16 runs with the ball in his right hand as defenders attempt to catch him in a stadium filled with fans.
Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Chuck Ealey (16) runs with the ball during a game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Dec. 3, 1972. (The Canadian Press)

Do any of these details mean the CFL has always been more socially progressive than the NFL?

Hard to say. Both leagues integrated in 1946, and as James R. Wallen points out in his book Gridiron Underground, the CFL’s first cohort of Black players dealt with racism in Canada, too. 

But on the field, CFL teams deployed early versions of what we now recognize as spread offences, and coveted mobile quarterbacks, with arms strong enough to pass to the wide side of Canada’s expansive football fields. If you found a quarterback with those tools, you tried to sign him, even if he was Black and it was the 1970s or early 80s. The Grey Cup featured two Black starters under centre every year from 1981 to 1983.

As a young football fan, I saw the CFL as a league that treated Black quarterbacks as equals, instead of typecasting Black athletes as wide receivers and cornerbacks. Now, equipped with history and perspective, we can also view the CFL as the beneficiary of the NFL’s bias against Black quarterbacks. Take any Black quarterback in the NFL right now — Mahomes, Hurts, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, doesn’t matter — put him in a time machine and send him back to 1980, and he likely starts his pro career in one of two places: In the background, like Doug Williams and Vince Evans, or in Canada, like Moon.

With that history in mind, we can see next Sunday’s matchup as the end result of the slow, still ongoing, erosion of the stereotype that Black men can’t lead pro football teams. It has never been a passive process.

It’s the product of a long string of hard-won achievements.

On both sides of the border.

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