Chris Rock has a classic bit in his 1999 HBO special “Bigger and Blacker” where he documents his father’s obsession with Robitussin as a cure-all remedy. “Daddy I got asthma! Robitussin. I got cancer! Robitussin. I broke my leg! Daddy pourin’ Robitussin on it.” When it’s time for me to ponder the complex and nuanced race relations in America, Chris Rock is my ‘Tussin—not because his insight is some cure-all medicine, but because it’s my go-to product. So, when I looked up one day and the NFL was down to merely four starting black quarterbacks, I looked to Chris’ comedy catalogue as prism to peer through and determine if this trend was a sports crisis or, ironically, socio-athletic progress. Was the black quarterback stigma—a stigma that has long kept sports’ most prestigious position one of white sanctity in a league dominated by black athletes—alive or dead?
Over the past two or three years, black NFL quarterbacks have been dropping like Lil’ Wayne-vocoder cameos. Michael Vick’s in jail. Steve McNair, Kordell Stewart, Aaron Brooks and Dante Culpepper retired—all before age 35 and arguably prematurely. Vince Young and Tarvaris Jackson are on the bench, replaced by marginal, geriatric journeymen. Even the survivors seemed close to peril. Donovan McNabb is old and already injury-prone. David Gerrard and JaMarcus Russell are struggling. And even though Jason Campbell led the Redskins to back-to-back victories over the class of the NFC East, you hear more “franchise QB” talk about fellow-youngsters Jay Cutler and Phillip Rivers. What’s the deal? These developments come on the heels of what some folks were calling a revolution, not too long ago, when black athletes invaded the NFL quarterback ranks, like a small pack of locusts. In 2003, it hit the high-water mark. There were seven starters, three finished with QB ratings in the top 10, Steve McNair shared MVP honors and McNabb advanced the Eagles to the NFC Championship game.
These days they seem at risk of returning to the Doug Williams/Warren Moon days, when a black quarterback was like the subject of one of those Sesame Street “One of These Kids is Doing His Own Thing” games. But there’s something more alarming or, shall we say, intriguing about this recent trend: No one is up-in-arms. No Sports Illustrated covers asking, “Where Have You Gone Randall Cunningham?” It hasn’t turned up as a topic on the ESPN chatter shows. Maybe I’m going mad, but part of me wants to take the ambivalence as actual progress. But then I look at a cat like Dante Culpepper, politely nudged out of the league well before he was ready to go, and wonder if he’s the victim of the same ol’-same ol’. I watched Chris’ new special, “Kill The Messenger,” hoping he said something that distilled a dynamic that I was ignoring. About midway through, he hit me with this juggernaut.
“I live in a place called Alpine, New Jersey. My house costs millions of dollars. In my neighborhood, there are four black people. Hundreds of houses, four black people. Who are these black people? It’s me, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z and Eddie Murphy. Only four black people in the whooooole neighborhood …Do you know what the white man that lives next door to me does for a living? He’s a f&%$!#@ dentist! He’s not the best dentist in the world! He’s not going to the dentists’ Hall Of Fame! … Black man gotta fly to get what a white man can walk to. … I had to host the Oscars to get that house and to this day… Do you know what a black dentist would have to do to move into my neighborhood? He’d have to invent teeth!”
This was a keen observation, germane to any discussion on race and NFL quarterbacks because of this idea: It seems that marginal white quarterbacks have an easier time keeping their jobs as starters (Chad Pennington), holding on to roster spots as backups (Gus Frerotte), getting drafted without standout college careers (Matt “Never Started A Game In College” Cassel) than their fellow mediocre black quarterbacks. Black QBs, typically, have to be Jay-Zs and Mary Js to be perennial starters or, sometimes, keep a roster spot at all. Byron Leftwich shouldn’t have to search for a gig holding a clipboard.
This jogged my memory of one of Rock’s previous insights. In 2004’s Never Scared, he joked that (I’m paraphrasing, here): “Equality is not in being great. Great black people have always been compensated. The true equality is the equality to suck like a white man.”
The benchings of Tarvaris Jackson and Vince Young were appropriate since they—in their latest games—both sucked, each offering dismal performances. It’s hard to defend Byron Leftwich—specifically as a starter—when he’s overshooting his receivers in the end zone, like he was aiming for the goal post instead. When you start throwing about as many interceptions as touchdowns and your team starts losing, your starting spot is going to go to one of those middle-aged, well-traveled game managers that are almost always white. This is when the stigma rears its head, especially when you consider the mediocre careers of the constantly employed Joey Harringtons or Kyle Bollers or Jake Plummers.
Now, you don’t hear as much black QB conspiracy talk in the barbershops. That’s progress. Terrelle Pryor, afterall, is a true freshman, starting quarterback for Ohio State University. That is most definitely progress. But he’s gonna have to be a Chris Rock/Mary J/Eddie Murphy in the NFL, because, although the black-quarterback stigma may not be alive and “kicking,” it is alive. Brothers like Pryor, Jackson and Leftwich can’t be “dentists.”
Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM Magazine. He is also a frequent commentator on ESPN.