After a week of media furor, ESPN faced the music. Put before the harsh eye of the camera, the faces on Sunday NFL Countdown were somber, and their tone was apologetic. They agreed that Rush Limbaugh’s remarks about a media conspiracy favoring black quarterbacks with regard to Donovan McNabb were unfounded and racist. Their response was appropriate and well-thought-out.
But ultimately, they missed the point.
They failed to place Limbaugh’s comments, and their condemnation of his remarks, in the light of what has historically been a long and tedious battle for true integration within the NFL, especially at the quarterback position.
In its infancy, professional football was integrated. In the 1890s and 1900s, America was even more obsessed with the idea of purity within amateur athletics than it is today. Back then, being a professional football player was about as reputable an occupation as being a professional wrestler. Most people didn’t care if African-Americans played pro football because most people didn’t care about pro football.
That all began to change in 1925, when Red Grange, a nationally recognized star running back at Illinois, joined the pro ranks immediately after his senior season. Others would follow, and by the 1930s the NFL was establishing itself within the American sporting mainstream. With the mainstream came racism. By 1933, the NFL’s owners had a secret agreement dictating that no black players be allowed to play their game. The policy held until 1946 and detrimentally affected the league for decades after.
Though the game saw the total number of black players skyrocket beginning in the 1970s (the NFL’s African-American player population now hovers above 70 percent), the quarterback position continued to be dominated by white players. The legacy of “stacking” — the placement of African-American players at positions perceived to require more athleticism and less intelligence — remained intact with regard to QBs.
But even this most latent of racist tendencies has been undermined. In 2003, there are an unprecedented number of black quarterbacks making an impact in the NFL. McNabb, Jeff Blake, Kordell Stewart, Quincy Carter, Daunte Culpepper, Aaron Brooks, Byron Leftwich, Steve McNair and Mike Vick all hold starting roles for their franchises. The inequity in percentages still exists in relation to the overall body of players, but the ratio is dramatically improved.
With that many prominent African-American signal callers, Limbaugh’s argument is nonsensical. McNabb is favored by the media not because he is black but because he is good. Stewart and Blake are not celebrated; rather, they are maligned for their struggles on the field. Any argument that McNabb’s fame outshines his statistics is equally invalid: in a team sport like football, the only stats that really matter are the win-loss column. And during his tenure in Philadelphia, McNabb has transformed the Eagles from “L’s” into “W’s.”
What’s more, as James Brown put it on Fox’s pre-game show, though McNabb’s fame is not the result of any hidden media agenda, perhaps he should be celebrated. His success is indicative of the league’s recognition of its racist past. Had he played 20 years ago, he would have been a safety. Instead, he is a star quarterback whose skills are undeniable, regardless of what Limbaugh may think about the color of his skin.