White Chocolate: Tim Tebow and the Black Quarterback Debate

By Andrew Williams
UC Contributing Writer

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 andrew.j.williams08@gmail.com.


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  1. Blake

    December 10, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    I think you’re oversimplifying the issue. Tebow was demoted to third string because of his inaccuracies. He only got to play because Denver was doing HORRIBLE with Orton a qb. Fans were eager for a change as well as an opportunity to see their first round rt play. And lets not act liked he’s a media darling. He has his supporters and his hates in the media. And what about his Christian following? That has some factor into his fan base and ‘popularity’.

  2. hiphopgrewup

    December 12, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    he’s winning in a miraculous fashion, turning the whole season around. it’s the consecutive comebacks. did you see last night’s game? nobody mistakes tebow for being the best quarterback, and they never will, but he keeps winning regardless.

  3. Sophie

    December 12, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    The article is correct but fails to acknowledge one other aspect that makes the Tebow movement powerful. His constant references to his faith has provided a number of white evangelicals–particularly in the Mountain West–their own archetype hero for their way of life. Yes, the craze over this kid is a bit much to watch but the added supernatural faith component is what I think a lot of people have latched onto.

    I do blame the sports analysts for failing to acknowledge the accomplishments of the Warren Moons, Randall Cunninghams, and Michael Vicks of the world in the face of the rise of this player; however, this is very consistent for the sports media industry, particularly in football. Should we accept it? No, but I am not surprised by it either… story.

  4. Andrew

    December 12, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    His faith is an aspect that I spent a lot of time contemplating initially, but I wanted to write a commentary that focused on his abilities and the issue of merit, rather than his spirituality. Though, there’s something significant to be said about his determination on the field, and the inspiration for that determination. There’s a resiliency that he draws from his faith. Confidence and courage are infectious (no matter their origins), and they’re qualities that any successful quarterback, and most-importantly any effective leader must exhibit. It’s certainly rubbing off on his teammates and fans.

    At this point, completions, passing yards and accuracy (the measurables) are irrelevant. There’s only one number that matters, and that’s the number in the wins’ column. And, I completely agree that White fans are desirous of someone like Tebow. He’s unorthodox and exciting to watch, as well as someone with whom they can identify. My main point, however, is about honoring the past.

    Sadly, I think the enchantment with Tebow will disappear if/when the winning stops.

  5. Charles

    December 14, 2011 at 3:01 am

    I wonder how much Tebow has been accepted by the general public? He has been criticized much more harshly than I would have expected given the double standard in place. In this regard I’m referring to largely white commentators. Tebow, is sort of an embarrassment to “good white quarterbacks” everywhere. That’s where a lot of the disdain for Tebow comes from. By sheer will he has been able to win some games and change a few minds. It will be interesting to see reactions when he loses a few games. The celebrating for him now is a reluctant one when it comes to whites. I wonder, if he loses a few games if he will relegated to the back, praying along with others that love Jesus, relieved from the embarrassment.

  6. taylorhyll

    December 14, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    I totally agree with you. Tebow can run back and forth, up and down, lose yardage and all of a sudden what use to be frowned upon viewed as a no no or grossly non productive is now seen as brilliant thinking. Quarterbacks who can think on their feet, scramble, run for much needed yards, is the new wave. Really white people? Black quarterbacks have been executing these feats since the birth of the game using their intelligence creating something out of nothing whether by air or ground gain. I am so not impress with Tebow.

  7. Ant

    December 19, 2011 at 2:17 am

    I identify with the point of the piece, but the discourse feels irreconcilably incomplete w/o discussion of faith etc. Suggesting that Tebow is continuing the archetype is a bit generous. He was actually valued at a discount to said archetype coming in to the draft. Vick was chastised for accuracy but always had a strong arm. He was ridiculed for decisionmaking skills as well, which goes back to the assumed intellectual inferiority. Brian Urlacher of the Bears said it best: “He’s a good running back.” He lacks the base level arsenal that the aforementioned black QBs had.
    Tebow had the highest selling rookie jersey without any prospect of playing time in 2010. To move units with not even the faintest hint of his eventual success. That to me has more to do with his core fanbase. It’s the same people who buy country music albums, the only genre that is immune to piracy. It’s the middle of America; they vote with their feet and wallets.
    He’s not only winning with a meager skill set, he’s winning in dramatic fashion. He’s everywhere because he sells a great story to a very active consumer base. Michael Vick is highlight reel, but Tim Tebow is a ideology.
    I fair evaluation of Tebow is a tall order because it requires the assessment of a series of intangibles that are difficult to quantify. He evokes strong patriotism among white onlookers who romanticize his charges down the field like he’s leading an army brigade or a fleet of Navy SEALs fighting for democracy. He’s the great white hope, but in a different way than Eminem in Hip Hop or Dirk Nowitski would be if he were a blond hair blue-eyed American instead of German.
    He’s more of a passing running back than he is a running quarterback. I do believe race is a driver in the mainstream acceptance of his unorthodox gameplay, but I believe the discourse is incomplete without the broader discussion of attributes that have led to him being canonized already.

  8. Peter Carlos Hinds

    February 4, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    It is American football.Basically consisting of game, video, audio, and up to 4 dimensions of data.If you are interested in the game.You have got to be part of the former tenets.I have seen in the past hundreds of black people line up ,and push to get tickets to enter a cinema.You want to know the history and culture of black people. Well this is a significant part of it.Not to mention the fight for black music and it’s electronic periferals.The white man has been known to take black musitions from out of the fields.Then put them to devote all of their time and energy to music.Then mutually share musical profits.Black boxers have been put on the highest pedestal by whites .With benefit to black and white. Blacks from the time I could remember have excelled at two things :entertainment and atheletics.Well please do’nt cut off the limb of the tree you are sitting on .Peter Carlos Hinds.

  9. Charles G

    April 14, 2012 at 8:51 am

    I was thinking about this article earlier today as I read another article talking about the hype behind RG3. What seems unique about RG3, as opposed to many other Black, or even athletic QBs is that he’s someone that’s being repeatedly called an intelligent QB, something that’s normally unheard of in describing Black QBs. There’s still a lot to be writtin in his NFL career, but I’ve found his media coverage thus far very interesting.

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