This article is part five of a multi-part series tackling racial issues in the NFL. Over the next few weeks, Hank Koebler will be addressing many aspects of this sensitive and somewhat uncomfortable topic, one that many choose to discount, minimize, ignore or even accept exists.
Hank writes, "Recently my colleague Jayson Braddock wrote an article expressing his frustration with the media’s fascination with race in sports. At first I dismissed this fascination as the media’s tendency to look for trends and comparisons that don’t exist. However, after more thought I started to wonder just how much of a role, if any, race still plays in the NFL. A lot of pondering led me to realize that it plays a bigger role in the league than I would have realized if I had not thought about it."
Is "Mobile Quarterback" Just a Code Word for "Black Quarterback"?
With last week's segment of Tackling Racial Issues in the NFL establishing that there are still subconscious racial biases affecting people's judgment and assessment of players, this week's segment will look at how that affects assessments of quarterbacks. As mentioned in a previous section, the first of the past decade saw a boom in the presence of black quarterbacks in the league. At one point, 5 of the 12 teams in the playoffs had a black quarterback, and a black quarterback played in each of the two conference championship games. This trend has reversed though: at the end of the 2010 season, the only starting black quarterbacks in the league were the Buccaneers' Josh Freeman, the Eagles' Michael Vick, the Vikings' Joe Webb and the Jaguars' David Garrard.
Jemele Hill published a mildly controversial article entitled “Is Race Still an Issue for NFL Qbs?” in November. In the article, Hill declared “it still seems as if race is playing a role in how some black quarterbacks are treated, managed, perceived and, ultimately, judged ” These strong words prompted a multitude of reactions in the blogosphere, including a study by the Big Lead's Jason Lisk that used statistics to examine whether black quarterbacks were indeed held to a different standard by their coaches. The statistics showed that there was no statistically significant difference in coaches' willingness to bench a black quarterback or a white quarterback, disproving Hill's declaration that “we have to be twice as good just to be considered equal with whites.”
“I looked at all cases since 1990 where a QB threw at least 15 passes, and had 3 or more I nterceptions while posting an adjusted net yards per attempt of less than zero. In laymen’s terms, these were stinker games. Eight of the 15 (53%) black quarterbacks were benched (i.e., had another QB on the roster throw a pass), while 59 of 128 (46%) other quarterbacks were benched. That is a statistically insignificant result and is very much in line with the overall averages. I slogged through some ugly, ugly games as a service for you, the reader, and in fact the only bias I saw was that coaches are reluctant to bench a young highly drafted quarterback having a bad game.
Still, one of the things I have observed is that black quarterbacks, as a group, have tended to be better at avoiding interceptions than their white counterparts. There were only 15 such bad games that showed up on the above list, three of them by Kordell Stewart. A majority of the black quarterbacks who have played for any extensive period of time have been above the league average at avoiding interceptions.”
Lisk's data suggests that coaches truly are colorblind when it comes to their quarterbacks, which should be unsurprising. After all, a coach's job hinges on his team's performance. For this reason, coaches are going to play whoever gives the team the best chance of winning. Although the study seems to show that coaches aren't strongly influenced by subconscious racial biases, it does nothing to tell us how the media views and presents black quarterbacks.
As mentioned in a previous section, announcers' and scouts' word choices vary by race. Oftentimes, when a white player makes a good play, he is described as “crafty” or a “student of the game.” When a black player makes a good play, announcers overuse the word “athleticism” until it grows old. These differences in media portrayal should be offensive to both black and white fans. This word choice, which doesn't have to necessarily be intentional to be harmful, suggests that black players aren't smart or hardworking, and that white players lack athletic ability. The media's portrayals of Donovan McNabb and Peyton Manning show that there is definitely a difference in the two players' reputations. When you look at the players' bodies of work, they are very similar. McNabb's Eagles won their division four years in a row, went to three NFC Championship games, and went to a Super Bowl. Manning's been to two Super Bowls, and played poorly in each. McNabb has a better record in the postseason than Manning does, and McNabb played for a worse team than Manning for his entire career. Depite this, McNabb is widely regarded as a choke artist, and was traded away from Philadelphia to a divisional rival for a mere second-round pick. Manning, whose name is in the discussion for greatest player of all time, was given the $23-million franchise tag designation after finishing one of the worst seasons of his career.
It would be ignorant and irresponsible to immediately assume race is responsible for this disparity. Another key element in the discussion about Manning and McNabb is style of play. Earlier in his career, McNabb used to be much more of a runner than Manning. Dual-threat quarterbacks have been a subject of intense debate for a while now, because traditionalists claim that a running quarterback can't throw from the pocket. This assertion is ridiculous and lazy upon further inspection. A player's ability to run and ability to throw are not correlated with each other. While “you need a pocket passer” is a catchy mantra to repeat, it does not tell the whole story. A player needs to be able to pass from the pocket, but if they're capable of that and they also happen to be able to break free with their legs if nobody is open. A player labeled a “scrambler” is often referred to as less of a thrower than his less mobile peers, and often has his intelligence questioned by scouts.
The draft is no exception. I've mentioned before that the draft is a giant congregation of stereotypes and lazy analysis. Instead of trusting their eyes, many TV networks' so-called scouts go by what they “know” from reading and seeing other analysts do their jobs. While it is debatable whether or not these stereotypes are racially biased, the pre-draft buzz surrounding Tim Tebow, a white quarterback known more for his running than for his passing, last year shows that these types of questions are less related to race, and more due to the struggle between traditional pocket passers and quarterbacks who use their legs to make things happen. While subconscious biases, which are harder to detect, may be subtly coloring people's biases, the media's bias is far more affected by a quarterback's style than his race. Even though these stereotypes are also lazy and ignorant, it is better they exist than some of the more dangerous racial ones.
Next Week: Is the Rooney Rule Still Fair?
Hank Koebler is a Journalist, NFL Writer and NFL On-Air Personality. Hank's writing has been widely published and he's received numerous awards and recognition for his work. You may email Hank @ [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @ HankKoebler
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