As an undergraduate I wrote a senior thesis entitled “The Myth of the Black Quarterback,” where-in I concluded that Black athletes, and specifically Black quarterbacks, have constantly had to fight with the racial “demons” of the past. Namely, their success has often fallen victim to the struggle to transcend an “intellectually inferior” stigma. The rise of Denver Broncos Quarterback Tim Tebow is evidence that this exploitation and discrediting of Black quarterbacks and their alleged mental ineptness persists, as the creation of a grossly overlooked double standard.
Historically, Black athletes have been worshipped – as physical specimen – for their superhuman abilities, which is often perceived as far superior to their White counterparts. Their limitations only extended as far as their incapacity to play positions like quarterback or to be head coaches. These were thinking positions requiring intelligence beyond what many believed to be within the bounds of Black intelligence. In the shadows of this assertion, every Black quarterback since Marlin Briscoe – who in 1968 ironically became the first Black quarterback to start in the National Football League for the Denver Broncos – has struggled to overcome the stereotype.
Conversely, Tim Tebow has received admiration for winning games, despite inconsistent play and meager statistics. In the past, Michael Vick faced similar criticism; he had a strong arm but had failed to develop the accuracy and precision required of a traditional quarterback. Vick was too one-dimensional. And, his speed and unpredictability were more of a crutch than a competitive advantage.
Under such chastisement, Black quarterbacks are forced into conformity as pocket passers or risk being remembered as gimmicks rather than a step forward in the evolution of the position. And yet, Tebow’s popularity as a hybrid quarterback is an inherent testament to the likes of Briscoe, Randall Cunningham, Warren Moon, Donovan McNabb,and Michael Vick – recognition that remains largely absent.
Race, since the era of boxing great Jack Johnson, who became the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion in 1908, has been a factor in measuring sports excellence. In 1910, James J. Jeffries, a former White undefeated heavyweight champion arose from retirement to challenge Johnson and “reclaim the heavyweight championship for the White race.” Though Johnson eventually prevailed, the fallout ignited race riots extending from the west to the Mid-Atlantic and up to the northeast in New York. There was widespread embarrassment and anger that Jeffries had been so severely dominated.
Presently, Tim Tebow’s celebrity and his cult-like following are symbolic of the desire for a modern day “great White hope” – a quarterback “out-of-ordinary” who identifies with the White fan population. Tebow has discovered what Michael Vick never could – acceptance as a running quarterback who “just wins games” – the mantra most repeated by his proponents. Clearly though, Tebow’s distinctiveness as a running quarterback is consistent with the Black quarterback archetype, and yet, his autonomy remains unchallenged; in fact, an offensive system has been implemented to tailor to his specific skill-set.
To his credit, Tebow has never fed into the hysteria. The media, football analysts, marketers, and (yes even) fans are largely to blame for exploiting Tebow and placing him in a glass box. And, to be clear, this is not a denigration of his accomplishments, but as much as we want to disassociate race from the debate, Tebow’s prototype far precedes him. In due course, it’s important to give credit to those Black predecessors who struggled mightily to gain the acceptance that Tebow has so easily attained.
Do you agree or disagree? What are your thoughts on the Tim Tebow debate?
Andrew Williams is Development Associate for Advancement Project in Washington, D.C. He received his Bachelor of Arts in American Studies (focus on Mass Media and Popular Culture) from Dickinson College. He writes about justice, politics, society and sports. Andrew blogs at johnnys3words.blogspot.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.