Throughout the history of modern sports, race has played an integral and divisive role. Race has helped shape how society views and participates in sports. For the first 100 years of modern sports, roughly starting around the 1850s, minorities, especially Blacks; were not allowed to play in any organized sports with Whites. To view sports in person, Blacks had to sit high in the cheap seats; or in a separate section within the grandstands, complete with a separate entrance and exit. As if segregation wasn’t already crippling this country and marginalizing Blacks in society; amateur and professional athletics had deemed Blacks unfit and not intellectual enough to participate in sports with Whites.
Now, you may be asking yourself the question, “With so many Black athletes like Lebron James, Michael Jordan, and Magic Johnson, to name a few; controlling both their athletic and business careers with such intelligence and foresight, ‘Why were Blacks not thought to be intelligent?’” The answer, unfortunately, and sadly, was that Blacks were perceived to be unintelligent, athletic beings, who had “instincts” much like animals. This meant that Blacks had abnormal strength, speed, and a body structure suited for athletics or combat; but, not a brain capable of processing a playbook or instructions. This uncouth and ignorant viewpoint is why it took almost a century for sports to be integrated.
When it comes to the position of Quarterback, the racist and classist attitudes had kept the position almost lily-white for almost 150 years. Ever heard of Joe Gilliam? Or Marlin Briscoe? Condredge Holloway? James Harris? I bet you haven’t. Joe Gilliam and Marlin Briscoe played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Denver Broncos, respectively, in their short NFL careers. In addition to being standout quarterbacks, they were simply great athletes, who excelled in other sports. Since they were terrific athletes, White NFL executives thought that they would be better suited as running backs or wide receivers.
Whenever either man faltered in his play, he would be benched; never returning to the field unless the White quarterback backing him up was injured. After the season, or sometimes even in season, both Gilliam and Briscoe would either be forced to switch positions or be traded to another team; if he wished to remain to play Quarterback. The new team wouldn’t necessarily give either man a shot. He would either end his career playing another position or just quit football entirely.
This saddens me and makes me think about other jobs. What if you had trained and prepared for most of your life to do a job in which you had the requisite smarts and the genetic gifts, and someone didn’t give you a shot because of your skin color? That would be terrible and even grounds for a discrimination lawsuit. But, not in the NFL just under 30 years ago. It was how business was done.
As bad as it was for all the men, and specifically Joe Gilliam and Marlin Briscoe, Warren Moon’s plight might be just a little more painful. After setting records at the University of Washington, in what was then known as the Pac-8, he went undrafted into the NFL in 1978. Now, when has that ever been known to happen? But it did and left a sour taste in Moon’s mouth. Undeterred, he went to Canada to play in the Canadian Football League for the Edmonton Eskimos. He went on to star there, winning 5 Grey Cups, the equivalent of winning 5 Super Bowls, the Grey Cup MVP twice, and throwing for over 21,000 yards in 6 seasons.
Finally, after accomplishing more than most football players do over the course of 2 careers in the CFL; he was signed in 1984 to the Houston Oilers. With the Oilers, he threw for over 49,000 yards, was named NFL MVP in 1990, and was a 9-time Pro Bowler. With all these career achievements, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006. Becoming the first Black and the first undrafted quarterback to achieve this. These accolades were not too shabby, for someone whom NFL executives thought wasn’t “smart” or “adept” enough to play the position.
Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, and Deshaun Watson are three excellent quarterbacks who played for the Super Bowl participant Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks, and the Houston Texans, respectively. They play the most important position in all of football and, arguably, all of the sports. The quarterback not only controls the ball every play but dictates the plays called about 95% of the time. This means that they must read and react to the defense. Adjust the play call to fit their own team’s personnel, and make the right play call to score. Obviously, not only is the physical and athletic talent needed to accomplish these specific goals; smarts and a focused mental attitude are also needed to ensure success.
These three young men have been given an opportunity to, not only play their chosen position; but to also grow and flourish. It was an opportunity Joe Gilliam, Marlin Briscoe, and James Harris would have been overjoyed to have; but weren’t respected enough as a man or athlete to obtain. It is why these aforementioned young quarterbacks, and also a prolific quarterback such as Lamar Jackson, should continue to strive and work hard at their craft; so they can light the path for future Black quarterbacks and carry the torch for those past Black quarterbacks that gave up their career, humanity, and manhood for present-day Black quarterbacks to let their light shine.
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