Commentary

Is race still an issue for NFL QBs?

The cases of Vince Young, Donovan McNabb and Jason Campbell raise the possibility

Originally Published: November 23, 2010
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

McNabb/Campbell/Young US Presswire, AP PhotosA curious common thread: All three of these quarterbacks have had trouble with their coaches.

Has anyone else noticed all the drama surrounding black quarterbacks during this NFL season?

• Jason Campbell, who has been fighting for his job all season in Oakland, was benched for the second time this year against Pittsburgh on Sunday.

• Six-time Pro Bowler Donovan McNabb was replaced by Rex Grossman during the final 1:50 of a close game against the Detroit Lions earlier this month because Redskins coach Mike Shanahan claimed Grossman was better suited to run the team's two-minute offense. Shanahan questioned McNabb's "cardiovascular endurance."

• And on Sunday, Titans coach Jeff Fisher demoted Vince Young to benchwarmer after Young threw a tantrum following Tennessee's 19-16 loss to Washington. Although thumb surgery is the official reason Young's season is over, Fisher made it clear before he knew the severity of Young's injury that his 27-year-old quarterback was being removed as the starter.

[+] EnlargeJason Campbell
AP Photo/Don WrightThe Raiders' Jason Campbell watched the fourth quarter of the Pittsburgh game from the bench.

In 2007, McNabb told HBO's "Real Sports" that black quarterbacks in the NFL face more pressure and tougher criticism than white quarterbacks do. The responses were predictable.

Racism is not an issue in the NFL.

Stop pulling the race card.

Quit whining.

But if you've paid attention to how some of the league's black quarterbacks have been treated this season, McNabb's words seem even truer now than they were three years ago.

I'm not calling anyone out for being racist, and I realize this might seem like an odd conversation to have considering that Michael Vick is on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated and his comeback is one of the best sports stories of the year.

I'm also not overlooking the facts that Campbell played poorly in the games in which he was benched, that Young's antics in Tennessee are largely to blame for his problems with Fisher, and that Shanahan has had difficult relationships with plenty of white quarterbacks in the past.

But it still seems as if race is playing a role in how some black quarterbacks are treated, managed, perceived and, ultimately, judged.

The first time Campbell was benched this season was during halftime of the second game of the season.

The impatience the Raiders have shown with Campbell is stunning. They gave up a fourth-round pick to get him, and were convinced he was the answer after things went south with draft bust JaMarcus Russell, another black quarterback.

Campbell will start on Sunday against Miami, but it's baffling that he's still fighting with Bruce Gradkowski -- whose career record as a starter is 5-11 -- for the No. 1 job.

[+] EnlargeYoung
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesWhen he's good, Vince Young is very good. But he's also been immature at times.

I know race doesn't completely explain the Raiders' treatment of Campbell or why he didn't work out for the Redskins. But Campbell's shortcomings are rarely clarified with the same perspective as some white quarterbacks.

You hear about his 25-35 record as a starter, but you don't hear that he's played for a different offensive coordinator in every season since the Redskins drafted him in the first round in 2005.

Most African-Americans are familiar with the notion that we have to be twice as good just to be considered equal with whites. And considering that there are only six black starting quarterbacks in the NFL, there isn't a lot of room for error.

Young and Fisher have had a number of problems over the years; and let's not pretend that Fisher, who I consider to be a good coach, is totally blameless.

Young is 30-17 as a starter, and you could argue that he saved Fisher's job last season after the coach reluctantly inserted Young into the starting lineup following the Titans' horrific 0-6 start.

As the starter, Young led the team to an 8-2 record down the stretch. Had he started the entire season, the Titans might have been a bigger threat to make the playoffs.

During his time in Tennessee, Young certainly has shown some immaturity. He sulks. He refused to re-enter a game because the fans were booing him. He got into an altercation in a strip club this past summer, reportedly because a man insulted his school, the University of Texas. His behavior, at times, has been inexcusable, and it has undermined his incredible talent.

But is it possible that some of Young's actions are a result of Fisher's lack of confidence, which has been a persistent issue since the Titans drafted Young against Fisher's wishes?

Fisher and Young had completely different accounts of what unfolded after Sunday's loss to the Redskins. Undoubtedly, Young didn't handle himself like a professional; but then again, I don't know of any quarterback who would be happy about being replaced by a third-stringer.

Young wanted to play despite a busted thumb. If Brett Favre had done that, we'd say he was being fiercely competitive.

But this is Vince Young, so he's being a brat.

[+] EnlargeDoug Williams
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesThe NFL has come a long way since Doug Williams quarterbacked the Redskins to a Super Bowl win in January 1988. But maybe there's still a ways to go.

I don't question whether black quarterbacks receive opportunities in the NFL, because it's obvious they do. But how fair are those opportunities? Despite all the progress that's been made by black quarterbacks, why does it still seem as if they are held to a different standard?

"Any franchise Caucasian quarterback will get unlimited opportunities to realize their potential," says Shaun King, an African-American who quarterbacked the Tampa Bay Bucs to the NFC Championship Game in 1999. "If Jay Cutler left Chicago, and even if he played badly, he's always going to be viewed as a franchise QB. For African-Americans, their value is strictly tied to their current performance. It's tough to stick up for Vince Young because his immaturity has been a consistent issue, but a Caucasian QB that has been as successful as Vince Young wouldn't be pulled as much as him."

In that interview with HBO, McNabb said this about quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Peyton Manning: "Let me start by saying I love those guys. But they don't get criticized as much as we do. They don't."

He's right. Manning has a Hall of Fame résumé and is one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the position. But he isn't facing an avalanche of criticism from the fans and media for the interception against the Patriots on Sunday that ended the Colts' comeback attempt and sealed the game for New England.

Manning accepted responsibility for the mistake, of course. But had that been McNabb, the reaction would have been downright vitriolic.

People are still searching for ways to blame newcomer Terrell Owens for the Bengals' disappointing 2-8 season, even though Palmer has guided the Bengals to only two winning seasons and hasn't won a playoff game during his seven years in Cincinnati.

So why doesn't Palmer get the Jason Campbell treatment? Why isn't he labeled an underachiever like McNabb?

Palmer and Manning certainly have been criticized, but rarely in their careers have they faced the same microscope or backlash that McNabb, Vick, or most other black starting quarterbacks have.

[+] EnlargeDonovan McNabb
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesHard to imagine that Donovan McNabb, an 11-year veteran, doesn't have the "cardiovascular endurance" for the Redskins' two-minute offense.

The late Steve McNair and the Titans had such a bad relationship at one point that the organization locked him out of the Titans' facility. On Tuesday, according to a report out of Nashivlle, Young showed up at the Titans' practice facility and was asked to leave.

"When you're an African-American president, you have to be mentally tough. If you're an African-American heading American Express, you have to be mentally tough," says Doug Williams, who is still the only black quarterback to win a Super Bowl (for the Redskins in 1987.) "It's a lot of stuff we kick under the rug. As an African-American, there's just some credit you're not going to get."

And there's a certain amount of respect black quarterbacks still can't seem to earn.

McNabb, who despite being an 11-year veteran who has been to five NFC title games, had to listen to his coach essentially call him too out of shape and simpleminded to run his offense.

McNabb, by the way, has led 17 fourth-quarter comebacks and 25 game-winning drives in his career.

I'm not saying black quarterbacks are above criticism or that race plays a role every time one of them loses his job. White quarterbacks are benched and second-guessed, too, same as black ones. It comes with the position, regardless of race.

But if most of us agree that racism is still an issue in this country, how can we dismiss its influence in sports?

The history of black quarterbacks in the NFL isn't pretty. Things have come a long way since Williams played, but it would be foolish to think that lingering perceptions and biases don't still exist. Let's not forget that while Vick was imprisoned for dogfighting, more than a few analysts suggested he should change his position when he returned to the field. That's what NFL scouts once told Warren Moon he had to do if he wanted to be drafted at all.

After McNabb made his comments to HBO, Campbell and Young were quick to say they didn't feel like race was a factor in how they were perceived.

I wonder if they feel that way now.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

MORE COMMENTARY

Jemele Hill | email

ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine

ALSO SEE