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Willie Lanier

Key Functionaries On and Off the Field

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On the other hand, Warren Moon, despite a stellar college career, culminating in him being the MVP of the Rose Bowl in 1978, was not drafted by an NFL team because he refused to switch positions. Instead, he chose to ply his craft in the Canadian Football League(CFL) where he led his team to six league championships. Having established himself as the best quarterback in the CFL, Moon landed a big contract with the Houston Oilers of the NFL and immediately became one of the better quarterbacks in the league. He ended his career as one of the all-time leading passers in NFL history, and was the first black NFL quarterback to be recognized as a superstar.


Taken together, the stories of Williams and Moon were true breakthroughs. Both men’s careers put an end to the common practice of drafting black quarterbacks late in the NFL draft, then converting those players to a different position. Of equal importance was their demonstration that black quarterbacks’ skill level was as varied as it was with their white counterparts, thereby allowing for black quarterbacks to be evaluated objectively and just as the black middle linebacker anticipated the gains that blacks made in the military in the ‘70s, the black quarterback anticipated the emergence and acceptance of black politicians in the ‘80s and ‘90s.


Professional football is now ahead of the racial curve and that the near elimination of antiquated racial attitudes on the gridiron anticipates similar progress in larger American society, with the advances of black players in each key functionary position making it easier for the American psyche to accept blacks as key functionaries in general.

The final key functionary position to open itself to black players was the center. The center is known as the captain of the offensive line and is charged with recognizing defensive schemes in order to call out the appropriate blocking assignments. Though hardly a high profile position in the way that middle linebacker and quarterback are, the reason this was the last position to have a black presence speaks to the complex nature of American attitudes towards leadership: the middle linebacker could be likened to military leadership and the quarterback could be likened to a politician. The center, with the emphasis on analytical and improvisational skill on the one hand and brute force on the other, represents both the highly educated engineering/technical professional as well as the blue collar union worker. In short, the center can be viewed as a combination of corporate chief technology officer, construction site foreman and union shop steward.


Given these particular characteristics, it’s no surprise that the first black starting centers were not seen in the NFL until the 1981 season when both Ray Donaldson of the Indianpolis Colts and Dwight Stephenson of the Miami Dolphins became starters on their respective teams. Like Lanier at the middle linebacker position, both men excelled almost immediately and their excellence paved the way for numerous other black centers, like Dermontti Dawson and Kevin Glover in the ‘90s and LeCharles Bentley, Andre Gurode, and Jamaal Jackson in the ‘00s.


The relative lateness of black centers’ acceptance in the NFL also finds its analogue in American society, for just as with the center position, the gains of blacks in key functionary positions in technology, construction or trade unions simply hasn’t occurred at the same clip or in the same time frame as those in the military or politics.


Still, when considered individually, it can be seen that significant progress has been made in assigning black athletes key functionary roles in professional football, and it’s at the point now that we can assert that racial “stacking” or discrimination by position in professional football is a thing of the past. In fact, an even bolder statement would be to say that professional football is now ahead of the racial curve and that the near elimination of antiquated racial attitudes on the gridiron anticipates similar progress in larger American society, with the advances of black players in each key functionary position making it easier for the American psyche to accept blacks as key functionaries in general.


Yet despite the obvious progress at the individual key functionary positions, when one looks at these key functionaries as part of the same team, the idea of progress isn’t as compelling. Though each position has had a starter on a championship team, there has never been a championship team that had starters at each of the key functionary roles at the same time. Though it would be unfair to say that there is an overt plan to prevent black players to excel at key functionary positions at the same time, one would have to acknowledge that in a league that is over 70 percent black, the fact that no championship team has ever started three black players at the key functionary position is somewhat surprising, and means we can contine to use to the black middle linebacker, quarterback, and center triad as a predictor of even more racial progress.


Throughout this essay I’ve made analogies to the military, politics, business, and technology, now let me stretch my analogy a bit further, and speculate that the day an NFL Championship team starts three black players at each key functionary position will foreshadow the day that America has a black president, vice president and secretary of state serving simultaneously.

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