Nearly 60 years after Willie Thrower became the NFL's first black quarterback in the modern T formation, players from Donovan McNabb and Vince Young to Doug Williams and Warren Moon have faced aspects of the same debate: "Do they have what it takes upstairs?" The question lurks and lingers even today, notwithstanding their success in leading teams to the Super Bowl and their relative prevalence on NFL rosters as starters and backups.
The question — sometimes whispered, sometimes asked aloud — was posed about Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall draft pick last month. And in Washington, D.C., last week, it was raised in a way regarding McNabb, the six-time Pro Bowler who guided the Philadelphia Eagles to five NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl. A sports radio station reported that coaches wanted him to wear a wristband with the plays on it, but he refused because he thought that it would be bad for his image and make him look dumb. Other media outlets claimed that the report was untrue and McNabb was never asked to wear a play-calling wristband.
Whether the report was true or not, a black quarterback's mental capacity became a topic for discussion.
McNabb played his first season for the Washington Redskins last year after spending the first 11 years of his career in Philadelphia — all under the same coach, Andy Reid, in the same offensive system. But the Redskins ran a different offense under coach Mike Shanahan, and reports surfaced in November from anonymous sources who claimed that the coaching staff thought McNabb was slow in learning the new system and as a result had to scale back the playbook.
This came on the heels of a game last Oct. 31, when a healthy McNabb was benched with less than two minutes remaining. Shanahan explained that the backup was more comfortable with the offense and more capable in the two-minute drill.
Now comes the unconfirmed report that led to "wristband-gate" in D.C.
For the record, plenty of white quarterbacks wear wristbands with the plays written on them. Super Bowl winners Tom Brady and Drew Brees are considered among the game's best, and you see them refer to their wristbands constantly during games. So there's no shame in using crib notes while playing the most demanding position in sports.
But intelligence is a touchy subject when race is involved. The notion that black players lacked the ability to read and comprehend defensive schemes is the main reason so few of them played quarterback in the NFL prior to Doug Williams, who led the Redskins to the Super Bowl in 1988.
Black college quarterbacks were routinely converted to other positions in the NFL, without even getting an opportunity to play under center. A black college quarterback wasn't taken No. 1 in the NFL draft until the Atlanta Falcons selected Michael Vick in 2001. But in the aftermath of McNabb's benching, noted author and Washington Post sports columnist John Feinstein accused Shanahan of "racial coding."
Unfortunately, we're at the point where it's nearly impossible to suggest that a black quarterback is slow on the uptake, even though the law of averages suggests that some of them are duller than others. The problem is determining how much of that assessment is colored — excuse the pun — by racial stereotypes and how much racial bias might hinder a prospect.
Granted, intelligence isn't the only quality that determines who makes a great quarterback. In hindsight, the Oakland Raiders made a huge mistake in selecting quarterback JaMarcus Russell with the No. 1 overall pick in 2007, overlooking concerns about his drive and motivation. Some observers thought that he lacked the smarts for the position, but he scored a 24 on the NFL's intelligence-measuring Wonderlic Test, higher than Hall of Famer Dan Marino (16) and future Hall of Famer Brett Favre (22).
Because quarterback is the most mentally challenging position, the presumptive intelligence of those prospects is scrutinized more heavily than that of prospects at other positions.
After leading his junior college to the national championship, Cam Newton led Auburn to the national championship last season and won the Heisman Trophy. When questions arose about his mental capacity at the next level, Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon — who was forced to play in Canada for six seasons when he refused to switch positions for the NFL and went undrafted in 1979 — said that some of the criticism reflected racial bias. Dissenters pointed out that Ryan Mallett, a white quarterback from Arkansas who wound up being drafted in the third round, faced some of the same criticism.
But if Mallett isn't up to par upstairs, it doesn't raise doubts about every other white quarterback. We need to ensure that the same is true when black quarterbacks are evaluated.
Deron Snyder, an award-winning journalist who covers sports, politics and pop culture, is a regular contributor to The Root. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.