Breaking a Stereotype: Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Doug Williams’ Super Bowl Victory

The Super Bowl two days ago was celebrated across the country, with families and friends gathering around bowls of salsa and bean dip to watch the Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers’. There were dozens of headlines surrounding the game: two head coaches that were also brothers, Ray Lewis’ final NFL game, the jubilant atmosphere in the hosting city of New Orleans. One aspect of the game, however, was only mentioned in passing because to analysts and fans alike, it seemed unimportant and unremarkable- the starting quarterback for the 49ers’, Colin Kaepernick, was black. It just didn’t seem that big of a deal. Twenty five years ago, however, that was not the case.

Doug Williams

January 31st, 1988, was the day the Denver Broncos faced the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XXII. On one side of the ball was the Bronco’s famed quarterback, John Elway. On the other was a man who was more known for the color of his skin than his skill on the field. His name was Doug Williams, and after a turbulent career that had seen its fair share of highs and lows, he had emerged to become the starting quarterback of the Washington Redskins. The fact that he was a black quarterback about to play in the sport’s biggest game did not go unnoticed, as he was surrounded by fan fair and media attention. It wasn’t until his team emerged victorious, however, and his stellar play earned him MVP honors, that Doug Williams truly broke the stereotype surrounding African Americans in the quarterback position.

Doug Williams 2

Before he even made it to the Super Bowl, black quarterbacks in the NFL were something of a rarity. It was felt that coaches and GM’s suffered from the misguided notion that they couldn’t read the defense or make smart passing decisions. Williams’ outstanding play on football’s biggest stage finally put an end to that belief. As Charles Ross, author of Outside the Lines, said, “Doug Williams really shattered that unwritten belief system that was prevalent in NFL. What he did could not be downplayed.” Ultimately, he was able to change the perceptions of African Americans in the game of football, proving that they had just as much skill in more cerebral positions as athletic ones. He showed that black quarterbacks could lead their teams to victory and represented the struggles that so many before him faced in being denied opportunities in the sport of football. Thanks to Doug Williams’ ground breaking achievement, African Americans are no longer hindered by positions or excluded from being quarterbacks. His victory on January 31st, 1988, was truly a victory for an entire race.

 

Works Cited:

Keys, Perryn. “25 Years Later, Doug Williams’ Win Still Resonates.” The Advocate. The Advocate, 31 Jan. 2013. Web. 05 Feb. 2013.
Harris, Terrance. “Doug Williams Broke down Barriers with Super Bowl XXII MVP Run.” Greater New Orleans. The Times-Picayune, 30 Jan. 2013. Web. 05 Feb. 2013.

NFL Coaching Diversity… Or Lack Thereof

This past offseason in the NFL resulted in eight open coaching positions, prompting owners and GM’s across the league to interview dozens of candidates to fill these jobs. Last week, the final spot was filled when Bruce Arians was hired as the coach of the Arizona Cardinals. This would’t be too notable, except for one overarching fact- all eight positions were filled by white men, leading many journalists and sports analysts across the country to question the NFL’s diversity in management and upper office positions.

About a decade ago, the NFL passed the Rooney Rule, a league wide requirement that teams must interview at least one minority candidate to fill an open coaching gig. This rule has been in effect for nearly ten years and initially served its purpose by allowing black head coaches to finally secure interviews with owners, a practice that itself had previously been difficult in a league still run by ideas of the “old boys’ club”. But, as evidenced by these recent hirings, coaching diversity has yet to truly change. Now that all eight positions have been filled, only 3 out of 32 head coaches in the NFL are minorities. This is in a league in which 68% of players are African American. So why do coaching statistics not reflect these demographics?

Lovie Smith- One of two minority head coaches fired this offseason

Lovie Smith- One of two minority head coaches fired this offseason

I don’t believe that blatant racism is to be blamed here. Rather, it is a more subtle and underlying atmosphere that governs the positions of African American coaches and coordinators in the league. The NFL has evolved to focus more on an offensive minded game. Therefore, GM’s are looking to fill coaching positions with offensive masterminds. The best way to become one? Play quarterback, a position that has historically been filled by mostly white players. Indeed, nearly all minority coaches in the past few years have defensive backgrounds. That being said, seven of the eight men hired this offseason were offensively-minded. Therefore, it is clear that there is a gap between what owners want in a coach and what minority candidates are capable of providing.

Ultimately, owners are going to hire whichever person they feel is best suited for the job, as well they should. Whether that person is black or white should have no impact on the decision. However, it is important that each candidate has an equal shot at being hired, which is why I feel that the Rooney Rule is important to make sure that head coaching positions remain an equal opportunity for all races and ethnicities. Meanwhile, I hope that future years will see the hiring of more minority head coaches, so that the number of African Americans in coaching and management positions can more accurately reflect and represent the demographics of the sport in which they have spent their entire lives.

 

Works Cited:

Chadiha, Jeffri. “Progress for Minority Coaches stalls.” ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures, 19 Jan. 2013. Web. 21 Jan. 2013.

Woodfork, Rob. “NFL Recap: More Diversity Needed in Coaching Ranks – WTOP.com.” WTOP Sports. WTOP, 21 Jan. 2013. Web. 21 Jan. 2013.

A Ridiculous and Irrelevant Question: Is RGIII Black Enough?

I had every intention of taking a break from posting over the holidays. However, that was before I saw an article about the comments made by Rob Parker on a recent episode of ESPN’s First Take. On the show, he and a few other analysts were discussing NFL rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, an African American player out of Baylor whose electrifying play has taken the league by storm this season. But instead of talking about Griffin’s unprecedented success or the maturity he has displayed in the past months, Parker, an African American as well, decided to ask if RGIII was “black enough” or if he was “down with the cause”. Here are some of his comments from the show:

“I’ve talked to some people in Washington, D.C. Some people in [Griffin’s] press conferences. Some people I’ve known for a long time. My question, which is just a straight, honest question, is … is he a ‘brother,’ or is he a cornball ‘brother?’ He’s not really … he’s black, but he’s not really down with the cause. He’s not one of us. He’s kind of black, but he’s not really like the guy you’d want to hang out with. I just want to find out about him. I don’t know, because I keep hearing these things. He has a white fiancé, people talking about that he’s a Republican … there’s no information at all. I’m just trying to dig deeper into why he has an issue. Tiger Woods was like, ‘I have black skin, but don’t call me black.’ People wondered about Tiger Woods early on — about him.”

Robert Parker

Skip Bayless, Rob Parker’s partner on the show, then went on to ask: “What do RG3’s braids say to you?”

“To me, that’s very urban,” Parker continued. “It makes you feel like … I think he would have a clean cut if he were more straight-laced or not … wearing braids is … you’re a brother. You’re a brother. If you’ve got braids on.”

RGIII

To me, these comments are absolutely ridiculous and uncalled for. I don’t understand why Parker felt it was necessary to make comments not only about Griffin’s race, but whether he should truly be considered a part of that race. With all of the amazing things that Griffin has accomplished on the field, there should be no need for Parker to be discussing the fact that he is black. Even another African American analyst on the panel, Stephen A. Smith, commented after Parker’s comments, “Well, first of all, I’m uncomfortable with where we just went.” In today’s society, we shouldn’t have to refer to a player’s race in order to analyze their play on the field.

Not only did Parker violate this policy, but he also had the audacity to question if RGIII was even black to begin with. I simply don’t understand this line of thinking, or what Parker considers to be truly “black”. ESPN has since issued a statement deeming these comments “inappropriate” and will hopefully take further action in the coming days. This action couldn’t come fast enough, and in fact I wouldn’t be upset if Rob Parker didn’t have a job at ESPN next week.

Timeline of the Civil Rights Movement Through Sports

To begin with, a comprehensive timeline of important dates and moments in sports and the civil rights movement-

* points that are bolded and italicized are those that occurred outside sports

1863- The Emancipation Proclamation is issued

1884- Moses Fleetwood Walker integrates professional baseball

1908- Jack Johnson becomes the 1st black heavyweight-boxing champion

1910- Jack Johnson defends his title and defeats Jim Jeffries, who had been deemed the “Great White Hope”

1919- Fritz Pollard begins pro football, goes on to form first all-black team

1923- Jack Trice, an African American Iowa State football player, is trampled to death on field against Minnesota

1936- Jesse Owens wins 4 gold medals at the Berlin Olympics

1938- Joe Louis defeats Max Schmeling

1947- Jackie Robinson integrates the MLB

1948- Armed forces integrated

1950- NBA integrated

1954- Brown vs. Board of Education dismisses “separate but equal”

1955- Montgomery bus boycott

1957- Althea Gibson wins Wimbledon

1957- the Little Rock Nine integrate Arkansas schools

1963- Martin Luther King Jr. gives his “I Have a Dream Speech”

1963- Mississippi State plays the integrated Loyola University in the NCAA tournament after having previously boycotting the tournament in protest of integration

1964- Civil Rights Act passed

1966- Muhammad Ali claims exemption from the Vietnam draft

1966- Bill Russell becomes first black NBA head coach

1966- Texas Western defeats all-white Kentucky in the NCAA basketball championship game with an all-black starting five

1967- Perry Wallace integrates SEC basketball

1968- Tommie Smith and John Carlos launch black power salute at the Mexico City Olympics

1970- USC defeats Alabama behind Sam Cunningham’s amazing game; the next year Alabama integrates its football team

1975- Frank Robinson becomes 1st black MLB manager

1975- Arthur Ashe wins Wimbledon

1989- Art Shell becomes the 1st black head coach in the NFL since Fritz Pollard

2008- Barack Obama becomes the first African American president of the United States

Michael Vick and the Media Depiction of Black Athletes

Michael Vick began a promising career as an NFL quarterback in 2001 before a shocking fall from grace. Viewed as a young talent with incredible athletic ability and tremendous upside, Vick ultimately lost all favor with the public after a scandalous arrest for involvement in a gambling and dog-fighting ring. When he was arrested, the sports world was shocked. Here was one of football’s greatest talents, and now it had been revealed that he had become involved in shady, illegal, and ultimately cruel activity. Needless to say, he became ostracized from society and was deemed a villainous figure who, above all things, hated puppies. Vick would be convicted of his crime and spent two years in prison before finally returning to the game three years ago. He is now the starting quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, and has executed play that has been good, if not great. The question that still shrouds this saga, however, is how he would have been received if he was white.

Following time spent in prison for his crime, Vick tried out for multiple teams and was eventually signed by the Eagles. In the years following his release, he was detested by the public and often appeared as number one on polls of the most hated players in the NFL. This sentiment shows that people were generally unable to forgive and forget, retaining grudges against him from several years ago. Some writers claim that this is only because his is black, although I feel that it must be remembered that he committed a heinous and cruel crime against animals, one that would cause a lot of people to dislike him. I don’t believe that his race is the reason he was disliked, although it may have played a part in his media depiction, as writers may have been more apt to present him as a thug and a brute in conjunction with common, and completely unjust, racial stereotypes against African Americans.

According to a statistic conducted in 2011, 97, 86, 86 and 90 percent, respectively, of sports editors, columnists, reporters and copy editors in the media world are white. The fact remains that although sports writers may not consciously discriminate based on race, they lack a connection to issues that are relevant with African Americans. This is true in the portrayal of many black athletes, and it also appears in the story of Michael Vick. Had sports media been more diverse, they would have been able to offer a balanced perspective that would have examined the issue from a diverse racial standpoint.

Vick has given many heartfelt and sincere apologies publicly, even appearing at high schools to talk to students about the crime of dogfighting. It’s no question that he is extremely remorseful for his actions and would take them back in a second if he could, not because he got caught, but because he knows they were wrong. Still, despite his every effort, the public still views him as “The Bad Guy”, a thug, a villain marring the face of football. The public has twisted him into a mold he no longer fits because everyone wants a bad guy they love to hate.  Now, despite his every effort to show sports fans his guilt, remorse, and ultimate enlightenment, Michael Vick remains the villain of the sport, a victim of the realization that one wrong choice can lead to seemingly permanent damage in public perception.

It is no question that Michael Vick committed a crime and that he was punished accordingly. Issues of race arise, however, when his situation is compared with that of another NFL quarterback, the white Ben Roethlisberger.  Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault in 2008, and although he was never convicted, the scandal was covered extensively by the media. Today, both men are still starting quarterbacks, but the only one still haunted by his former brush with the law is Vick. Many writers have claimed that Roethlisberger has not been treated as harshly as Vick, with one article even stating that “Roethlisberger’s complexion has inherent perks that allows to him establish connections with the media that Vick cannot draw upon.”

I think that it is important to remember that Michael Vick was convicted of his crime and spent time in jail for it, whereas Ben Roethlisberger was never convicted of sexual assault and certainly never sentenced to prison. Additionally, media coverage of both incidents was extensive and critical, and I do not believe that Roethlisberger received more favorable treatment merely due to his race. That being said, I do find it possible that Vick could have been portrayed in a manner depicting him as a thug, hooligan, and delinquent because of racial stereotypes on behalf of an overwhelmingly white sports media, and that these sentiments may have lasted long after this issue has passed because of common social prejudices against black athletes. Hopefully, a more diverse sports media world could eliminate these racial stereotypes and allow for a more balanced and fair depiction of black athletes to the public.

 

Works Cited:

Rogers, Dexter. “Michael Vick: Was ESPN’s Portrayal of Vick Being White Fair?”Bleacher Report. N.p., 28 Aug. 2011. Web. 05 Dec. 2012.

Meet… Fritz Pollard

“You had to be tough as nails to play in that league. And that went double if you were black, because they really came after us.”

In 1919, when Fritz Pollard first began playing football in the NFL, sports was one of only a few opportunities for African Americans to advance their social and economic status. He may not have been the first black man to play professional football, but he certainly was one of the most influential of his time, emerging as a dominant force in the quest to keep the NFL integrated. Throughout his career, he continued to struggle to allow African Americans to retain their rights to play the game of football at the highest possible level. His pioneering efforts had a lasting impact that helped delay the eventual segregation of the NFL, and through Fritz Pollard’s unparalleled dedication and love of football, African Americans were able to define their place in the sport before they were ultimately forced out.

Pollard was born in 1894 into a middle class family outside Chicago. Like his three older brothers, Fritz emerged as a football star once he reached high school. It was as a student and athlete of his predominately white school that Pollard first learned how to deal with the discrimination and racial prejudice he received from his fellow students and athletic opponents. Although he excelled in baseball and track as well, he decided to focus on football in college, presuming that he would have more opportunities in the sport as an African American. After bouncing around from several colleges, he eventually ended up at Brown University where he joined the football team. At first, things weren’t easy. Pollard was ostracized by his white teammates and targeted on the practice field. However, he endured this blatant racism and ultimately emerged as the star of the Brown football squad.

After proving himself to be one of the most talented halfbacks in the country, Pollard went on to become the first African American to play in the prestigious Rose Bowl on January 1st, 1916. The following year, he elevated the Brown team even more, leading them to consecutive victories over heavily favored Harvard and Yale. His performances this year were so great, in fact, that he was named as a first team All-American, the second black player ever to receive this honor and the first to do so as a member of the back field. Due to these accomplishments, Pollard began to receive recognition from various civil rights groups and black organizations, traveling from city to city along the East Coast to accept awards and accolades. Unfortunately, he also began to neglect his studies, and the following season he was ruled academically ineligible to compete on the Brown football team.

Because of his ineligibility, Pollard entered military service for a few years before returning to football. When he did return, however, it was as a member of the Akron Pros professional football team in 1919. The next year the Pros joined the American Professional Football Association (APFA), later the National Football League. That year, Pollard assumed some of the coaching duties, and behind his powerful backfield play and the eastern formations he had brought from college, the Pros went on to win the APFA championship. Despite this success, Pollard still suffered as an African American in an all-white league. Indeed, when he first began playing, he was one of only two black players in professional football, and life was certainly not easy because of it. On the road, he was not allowed to eat at the same restaurants or stay in the same hotels as his teammates. He sustained verbal and physical abuse from Akron’s fans, who he claimed were just as prejudiced as anyone from the South. He even had to dress for home games at a local cigar store and arrive at the stadium just before game time in order to protect his safety.

In 1921, Pollard was named co-coach of the Akron Pros, making him the first African American coach in NFL history. During this time, he emerged as one of the best players in professional football alongside Jim Thorpe, a football legend. He went on to play for several other teams in the league, often acting as both a coach and player while remaining one of the most dominant men on the field. During this time, more African Americans began to enter the league, many of whom were recruited by Pollard himself. Because of his efforts to help more blacks play professional football, Fritz was also able to organize an interracial all-star game in Chicago that showcased a team made up of the finest African American players in the league against an all white squad. His purpose was clear: to showcase the talent of black athletes and promote integrated competition in sports.

Later, as the head coach of the Hammond Pros in 1925, Pollard brought in three black players who, alongside his own play, made Hammond the most integrated team in the NFL. This year would mark the height of African American participation in the NFL before growing discrimination would cause the number of black football players to begin to fall, until there was only one African American player in 1927. Dismayed by these numbers, Pollard went on to found an all-star black professional team in 1928 called the Chicago Black Hawks. This team played games against all-white professional teams before folding due to Depression. They were able to prove that interracial play was possible without the ugly incidents that had marred NFL competition between whites and blacks.

Eventually, a ban on African American participation in the NFL was passed in 1934, and so in response Pollard formed and coached an all-black professional Harlem football team, the Brown Bombers. Like the Black Hawks, the Bombers played against all-white professional teams, usually dominating behind the strength of their all-star African American talent. With his team soundly defeating NFL team after NFL team, Pollard was able to prove that blacks were talented enough to play in professional leagues, thus challenging the NFL’s race ban and bringing the issue of segregation to the forefront of professional football. After resigning as head coach of the Bombers, Pollard continued to oppose the NFL ban and remain a prominent advocate for integration in football.

Sadly, the immense contributions of Fritz Pollard are often regarded as merely a footnote in the history of the NFL, but in reality they were so much more. As a player, he helped pave the way for his fellow African Americans to enter the sport, and as a coach he maintained integration by recruiting other black players to join his teams. Once he left the NFL, he continued his advocacy by organizing first the Chicago Black Hawks and then the Brown Bombers, two teams that proved African Americans had just as much a place in professional football as anyone else. Indeed, the Bombers enabled blacks to continue to play against professional teams after they had been excluded from the NFL due to the league’s race ban. Ultimately, Fritz Pollard was a man whose extensive contributions to the game of football helped promote integration and establish a place for African Americans to participate at the professional level.

 

Works Cited:

Brooks, Scott, and Charles Kenyatta Ross. Race and Sport: The Struggle for Equality on and off the Field. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2004. Print.

A Good Man Lost: The On-field Death of Jack Trice

On October 8th, 1923, Iowa State’s first African American football player Jack Trice was killed after being trampled during a game against The University of Minnesota two days before. It is a tragedy that has been examined again and again by historians throughout the past century, with one question repeatedly occurring: Was race a factor? There is evidence indicating that it did indeed lead to the fatal on-field abuse Trice suffered, and there is evidence indicating it did not. In the end, we may never know the answer to this question, but the facts remain the same: Jack Trice was the first black athlete to play both at Iowa State and the Missouri Valley Conference; he suffered discrimination and abuse from the community and other schools as a result of his race; and ultimately, he was killed following an ugly play against a team that had never before encountered integration.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of this event can be found in the letter Trice wrote on the eve of the Minnesota game, his first as a member of the varsity football team. It read:

“To whom it may concern:

My thoughts just before the first real college game of my life. The honor of my race, family, and self is at stake. Everyone is expecting me to do big things. I will! My whole body and soul are to be thrown recklessly about on the field tomorrow. Every time the ball is snapped I will be trying to do more than my part. On all defensive plays I must break through the opponent’s line and stop the play in their territory.
Beware of massive interference, fight low with your eyes open and toward the play. Roll block the interference. Watch out for crossbucks and reverse
end runs. Be on your toes every minute if you expect to make good.”

This letter, as well as accounts from Trice’s contemporaries, depict a determined and courageous young man unwillingly to let his race or society’s views dictate his life. When he arrived at Iowa State, he encountered a white community in which Klan activity and discriminatory practices were prevalent. Yet none of this deterred him, and he continued to devote himself to his team and his academic studies. That is why it is so upsetting that the life of this bright young man was cut short in an event that carries possible racial undertones.

So did race play a role in this incident? Later interviews with several of Trice’s teammates indicate that they believe the play was not intentional, and that Trice had been trampled by accident by the opposing Minnesota players. However, Merl Ross, Trice’s employer, told the Des Moines Tribute following Trice’s death that he believed that the Minnesota players wanted to knock Trice out of the game because he was black, and that’s what they had done. Indeed, just after Trice had been taken off the field following his injury, the Minnesota fans began cheering “We’re sorry, Ames, we’re sorry” (Ames is the city in which Iowa State is located). Whether or not this remorse stemmed from a possible racial standpoint, we may never know.

In the end, Jack Trice made history by integrating the Missouri Valley Conference and the Iowa State athletic program. He was a young man who understood the duty he bore for his race and who was determined to make his family and his fellow African Americans proud through his accomplishments. It is a shame that he was killed so young, and I would like to believe that his injuries were the result of an accident, a standard football play gone wrong. However, the possibility of racial undertones casts a menacing shadow over the incident, and the fact that it is even possible that there were sinister motives behind this incident proves just how poor race relations were at this time period. Iowa State has since named its football stadium “Jack Trice Stadium” (the only current Division 1-A School to have an athletic stadium named after an African American), proving just how enduring a legend this remarkable man has become, even at the cost of his life.

 

Works Cited:

Sullivan, Steve. “VISIONS Winter 2010 | Cover Story.” VISIONS Winter 2010 | Cover Story. Iowa State University, Winter 2010. Web. 14 Sept. 2012. <http://visions.isualum.org/winter10/coverstory.asp>.

USC vs. Alabama: The Game That Changed Everything

In 1970, when perennial football powerhouses University of Southern California and University of Alabama met in what was considered to be a high profile match up, college football in the South was still marred by segregation and teams remained predominantly white. But that wasn’t on the minds of spectators and fans in the days leading up to the game. They were too concerned with whether or not the Crimson Tide was going to be able to pull off a victory and restore themselves to their previous dominance following a 6-5 season the year before. But by the end of the game? By then, integration had come to the forefront of everyone’s minds.

Despite high expectations for Alabama, they were thoroughly trounced by the Trojans, 42-21. The main reason for this rout? USC’s black running back, Sam Cunningham. It was the first time a fully integrated team had played in Alabama, due to social attitudes toward integration and previous laws that had prohibited Alabama sports teams from playing against integrated squads. So when USC came down South to play against the all-white Crimson Tide, no one knew quite what would come of it.

In the end, Sam Cunningham rushed for 135 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 12 carries. In other words, he ran right over Alabama’s defense and singlehandedly stomped the Crimson Tide. That a single player could so thoroughly embarrass their team, and that that player was black, had a profound impact on the Alabama faithful. Suddenly, their whole cultural attitude toward integration shifted. If they wanted their team to be the best, shouldn’t they try to recruit the best, regardless of race? Bear Bryant, Alabama’s legendary coach, would have liked to recruit black players, but had refrained from doing so due to the discriminatory ideals of the state. Now, however, fans realized that if they wanted to compete with other top teams, such as USC, they would have to open their doors to black athletes. And so they did. Within the next year, the Alabama Crimson Tide was an integrated football team, and they went on to win three national championships under Bear Bryant.

Sam Cunningham is said to have done more to integrate Alabama in sixty minutes than Martin Luther King Jr. did in twenty years. While this may be a slight over exaggeration, it is clear that his phenomenal game against the Crimson Tide in 1970 marked a change in the South’s racial attitude. Alabama citizens were finally able to see the necessity of integration and to begin to accept it in society, a change that may have been a long time coming, but that came nonetheless.

Works Cited:

Everson, Darren. “The Game That Changed Alabama.” The Wall Street Journal. N.p., 4 Dec. 2009. Web. 20 Sept. 2012.