Quarterback Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins fields questions during Media Day for Super Bowl XXII against the Denver Broncos at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, California. The Redskins won the game, 42-10. (Getty Images)
by David A. Love
Super Bowl Sunday approaches, and black history could repeat itself in the match up between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers.
If 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick wins on Sunday, he would become only the second black quarterback to claim a Super Bowl victory. Kaepernick is biracial and was adopted by a white Wisconsin couple.
Meanwhile, this marks 25 years since Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins became the first and only black NFL quarterback to win the Super Bowl.
To some degree, Williams’ victory in Super Bowl XXII shattered racial stereotypes about the ability of black athletes to excel in such a position.
Somehow, there is a longstanding assumption that black players simply aren’t intelligent enough, that they lack the requisite IQ, the smarts and the leadership qualities to excel in the game.
Conversely, their white counterparts are regarded as sharp, strategic, hard-working and natural-born leaders.
And apparently, old racial stereotypes die hard.
The sentiment was reflected in sports analyst Mike Maycock’s assessment of Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton—now with the Carolina Panthers— two years ago:
“Can he adapt to, can he process and assimilate a very structured and complex pro offense against a complex pro defense?” Maycock asked.
“And secondly, and most importantly, when you get to a certain skill level in the NFL, which this kid certainly has, at the quarterback position what kind of kid is he? Is he going to be the first guy in the building? Is he a gym rat? Is he football smart? Is he a leader of men?”
Throughout sports history, the qualifications of black athletes, not unlike black people as a whole, have come under question.
Jesse Owens became the hero of the 1936 Berlin Olympics by winning four gold medals, defying Hitler’s master race ideology and denying the Nazis their opportunity to make the Olympics a showcase of Aryan white supremacy. Hitler stormed out of the stadium and refused to shake Owens’ hand.
Meanwhile, African-Americans won six of the 11 gold medals claimed by the U.S. in Berlin. And after his Olympic fame, Owens would later race against horses and cars to earn a living.
Sports announcer Howard Cosell referred to black football players as monkeys.
In 1973, he said, “Look at that little monkey run!” when referring to running back Herb Mul-key of the Washington Redskins, in a game against the St. Louis Cardinals. And in 1983, Cosell said of Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett, “That little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?”
The late Marge Schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds baseball franchise from 1984 until 1999, was known for her offensive ethnic and racial remarks, including insensitive comments about African-Americans. Once she reportedly called former Red outfielders Eric Davis and Dave Parker her “million dollar ni**ers.” A baseball executive claimed she heard Schott saying she would “never hire another ni**er. I’d rather have a trained monkey working for me than a ni**er.” Schott later said she used the N-word as a joke, then expressed the belief that Hitler was good for Germany at first.
Meanwhile, the sports commentator and Las Vegas bookmaker Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder came under fire in 1988 for saying blacks were bred to be superior athletes.
“The black is a better athlete to begin with because he’s been bred to be that way, because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs and he’s bred to be the better athlete because this goes back all the way to the Civil War when during the slave trade,” Snyder claimed. “[T]he slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid,” he added.
Moreover, in 2003 Rush Limbaugh resigned after a brief stint as a football commentator on ESPN after making controversial remarks about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. Specifically, Limbaugh believed McNabb was not as good as the media thought he was.
“I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well,” Limbaugh said. “There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.”
Limbaugh also once remarked that “the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons. There, I said it.”
And when Joel Ward of the Washington Capitals became the first black hockey player to score a winning goal in a Game 7, racist sports fans called him the N-word and called hockey a white man’s sport.
Looking back to 1988, and Doug Williams was asked many questions regarding his historical significance as he prepared to become the first black quarterback to start in a Super Bowl. Some of these questions were nonsensical.
For example, “Doug, do you feel like Jackie Robinson?”
But one journalist asked Williams a profound question: “Doug, it’s obvious you’ve been a black quarterback all your life. When did it start to matter?”
As for Kaepernick, the focus appears to be on his rare arm strength and mental toughness, his counterculture persona and tattoos. He has become a household name, and has even applied for patents for six terms, including “Kaepernicking.”
When it no longer matters that a quarterback is black, or at least no one questions his intelligence or leadership abilities, then history truly is made.