The Revolution Was Televised; Institutional Racism and the NFL (updated version)

by Tom Sheik

Gil Scott-Heron was wrong. The black rapper wrote a famous song back in 1970 called “The Revolution will not be Televised.” A rapper in 1970? It sounds anachronistic, like running the west coast offense in 1947.

In this year’s NFL playoffs, I’ve seen the revolution. Suddenly, in one year, when only a handful of black quarterbacks had ever started a playoff game, there it was. Right in front of my eyes were not only three black quarterbacks starting in the playoffs but two of them rookies and the third a second year backup with only six NFL starts. It’s rare enough to see rookies start playoff games, but two of these guys weren’t even highly prized (and thus highly paid) draft picks. Robert Griffin III, now famously known as RG3, was the second pick of the draft and his stardom was considered a given. The celerity and arc of his success, taking his team the long suffering Washington Redskins to the playoffs, was not. (If you’re wondering why anyone even needs to write an article about NFL racism when the nation’s capitol has a team called the Washington Redskins, I feel you).

Colin Kaepernick was the 36th pick in last year’s draft and merely roamed the sidelines until starting quarterback Alex Smith got a concussion this year. CK1 (as I insist on calling him to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome from typing his name, and in anticipation of future cologne endorsements for Calvin Klein) entered the playoffs having started only six games. He was only the sixth quarterback picked in 2011’s draft as was Russell Wilson in 2012, when he was the 75th overall pick.

A franchise quarterback in the NFL is usually picked very early in the first round of the draft, no later than the 10th pick overall. How did CK1 and Wilson, who’ve both been clearly the driving forces in their teams’ success, come so cheap?

CK1 led the 49ers in a second-half comeback that nearly won them the Super Bowl. Wilson led the lowly regarded Seahawks to a playoff victory and narrowly missed winning another, leading a historic second-half comeback against Atlanta, only to see Atlanta drive to kick the winning field goal. Wilson’s 385 passing yards are the all time record for any rookie in NFL playoff history.

The founders of the NF were overwhelmingly white, right-wingers. The conventional wisdom among these plutocrats was that blacks generally lack the intelligence it takes to be an elite quarterback. Thus, black quarterback prospects were routinely converted into playing other positions.

I have no intention of launching into the long history of NFL racism. Institutional racism is as ingrained in America as corporate greed. We may well live in a post-racial society socially. 80% of white people would be thrilled to have a chance to meet Oprah, Beyonce, or Michael Jordan. The remaining 20% would be ecstatic at a chance to meet Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice.

This is what leads white people discussing racial issues to be so comfortable stating “I’m not a racist, but…” with the “but” being something as ludicrous as the belief that President Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim. This formulation constitutes the first rule of racism: white feel people entitled to unilaterally declare whether or not they are one. Just like in “Fight Club” the first rule of racism is to deny there is any such thing as racism.

I’ve watched NFL games for forty years and still hear the announcers refer to black players as “athletic” and “instinctive” while white players are “smart” or “cerebral”.

Until the old AFL was founded (by team owners with far less capital than their NFL counterparts), NFL teams had informal quotas about how many jobs were available to black players, especially in the south. The less monied startup AFL, led by Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, signed up as many of the best players they could afford which led to the AFL playing far more black players. Eventually, this tactic of hiring the best talent available culminated in a merger between the old AFL into what is now a unified NFL. There remains an American and a National conference within the NFL, but the difference is now virtually meaningless. The owners in both conferences are now almost exclusively white billionaires.

You would think that would pretty much put an end to the NFL’s racism, and indeed it has helped immensely. There are now many successful black head coaches and blacks are even penetrating the upper, corporate level of personnel director and general manager.

This is the beauty of capitalism. Not the naked, greedy capitalism preached by the right wing. In fact, the NFL succeeds largely because it is a government sanctioned monopoly, and the players have a strong union; a situation made hysterically ironic by the fact that government sanctioned monopolies and unions are two of the hated scapegoats of the right wing plutocracy which started the league.

Thus the NFL seems to have a love/hate relationship with itself. So perhaps I can’t be blamed for my love/hate relationship with NFL football.

Theoretically, the NFL is a place where the purest form of meritocracy reigns. And generally it does. Owners are motivated by two things: acquiring as much money and power as possible, and to win football games (and ideally, the Super Bowl).

Generally the NFL has a strong meritocratic streak and has made a genuine, affirmative effort to end racist policies. The one remaining citadel of racism is the position of quarterback.

Ask an NFL fan to name the top 20 players to play in any position in the league. Excluding quarterbacks, you will hear a list including at least ten black players. But ask regarding the top 20 NFL quarterbacks, and until this year, you’d probably hear at most one or two names.

This is not because of hatred, conspiracy or even social racism. This is a pure and telling example of the narrowly understood phenomenon of institutional racism.

The league has systematically drafted black quarterbacks lower than their white peers. It has long been an unspoken maxim that blacks are just not smart enough to be winning NFL quarterbacks. Although African Americans are constantly setting records in college football for variously gaining yards, scoring points, and winning championships, they were routinely drafted to be converted to play another position.

This year a perfect storm has formed and it will change the NFL’s relation to black quarterbacks forever. RG3, who brings not only outstanding athleticism but intelligence and leadership to the position, led the downtrodden Redskins to the playoffs. He did suffer a serious injury, but given this young man’s skills and dedication I am confident he will return as a dominant, maybe THE dominant, player at the position.

CK1, who led the 49ers in this year’s Super Bowl, looks to have an outstanding future. Russell Wilson, who overcame the dual prejudices against black quarterbacks and, at just 5’10”, against short quarterbacks as well, is already considered to be a star.

A word should be said here noting that this perfect storm did not just emerge from the ether. Jim Harbaugh who traded up for CK1 and made a radical decision to play him despite the team already thriving with starter Alex Smith, comes (although he played quarterback in the NFL) from a long college coaching background, as does Wilson’s Seahawks coach Pete Caroll, a long time success at USC.

The college game has it’s own miasma of hypocrisy to deal with but we’ll save that for another time. The major flaw the college game does not share with the NFL is the myth that you can’t win with a black quarterback. In fact, college football is replete with a plethora of successful black quarterbacks as well as innovative coaches to make full use of their skills.

The pistol formation which CK1 operates from is largely derived from the talented coach Chris Ault at CK1’s alma mater, of the University of Nevada.

The NFL is generally a place where coaches copy whatever works; it was not conspiracy but unchallenged prejudiced beliefs that kept black quarterbacks unsuccessful at the NFL level.

There will also be a massive influx of coaching talent from the colleges into the NFL, not only to coach these talented quarterbacks but to figure out how to defend against them. CK1 made the Packer defense look like absolute zombies as he glided through them and generally dismantled their efforts, all with an air of casual authority and grace.

Russell Wilson destroyed the Falcons defense in a furious second-half comeback making them look powerless to stop him.

I vaguely remember as a child watching a black, rookie quarterback named Marlin Briscoe play for the Broncos in 1968. Perhaps I would never have noticed him, but I was a Miami Dolphins fan and a big fan of the old AFL from it’s inception. He had the same seemingly magical effect on defenses that RG3, CK1, and Wilson have had. He set the Denver record for rookie quarterback performance. Briscoe was only the second black quarterback ever to play pro football. After his spectacular rookie season, his reward was being forcibly switched to playing wide receiver.

As for Gil Scott-Heron, I wish he could be here to see all this. He was posthumously honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012. As Chuck D of Public Enemy stated in response to Heron’s death, “R.I.P. G.S.H….and we do what we do and how we do because of you.”

Gil, I want you to know that the revolution will be televised all over the world. And please forgive me if as I watched CK1 move his team down the field, I thought back to Marlin Briscoe deftly avoiding tacklers only to be rewarded by being denied the right to play his given position.

So as glad as I am this is happening now, forgive me if I remain angry it has taken so long, and that institutional racism still thrives in a country that claims to be the world’s greatest meritocracy.

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