White Up the Middle: How Pro Football Changed the American Racial Psyche

Willie Lanier

Baseball and Jackie Robinson are rightly credited for beginning a major sea change in American race relations during the mid-20th century, but for a look at current relations between white and black Americans it is football, not baseball, that provides the most instructive glance.

Baseball and Jackie Robinson are rightly credited for beginning a major sea change in American race relations during the mid-20th century, but for a look at current relations between white and black Americans it is football, not baseball, that provides the most instructive glance. Granted, there is a glaring omission of women when using football to comment on the racial attitudes of larger society, however, looking at football solely from the position of key functionaries and not gender provides a thought-provoking perspective.

In sociological terms, key functionaries are positions within a social system that are capable of influencing and performing crucial activities. Because of their location, these positions are centers of power and control. At times, key functionaries control inputs and outputs with outside environments, while other times they serve as channels for the flow of messages among a system’s parts, and finally, others are responsible for directing the flow of system activities. Since each social system must depend on the adequate performance of these positions for its overall operations, key functionaries are capable of wielding a great deal of power.

Professional football consists of two major modes of operation: defense and offense. In comparing professional football to the larger American system, defense represents the military, while offense represents the political economic environment, and just like their analogues in larger American life, each mode of operation has multiple levels of systems to be controlled and coordinated, and need key functionaries to handle these control and coordination efforts.

When professional football was integrated in the late '40s, given the attitudes towards black intelligence at the time, black players were placed at the "skill" positions, which is another way of saying they were asked to just run fast and hit hard. Their white counterparts were allowed to play both the skill positions and the key functionary positions. On the defensive side of football, there is one key functionary--the middle linebacker. While on the offensive side of football there are two--the quarterback and the center. What separates these positions from the others is that they have responsibilities that require them to think beyond their individual positions, and these responsibilities can be categorized as “pre-snap” and “post-snap”. That these positions were the exclusive domain of white players for many years led to the phrase “white up the middle”, since the middle linebacker, quarterback, and center all were positioned squarely in the middle of the field.

The first key functionary position to consider is middle linebacker. This position gained prominence in the '50s when a white player named Joe Schmidt of the Detroit Lions redefined how it was played. Before Schmidt, the middle linebacker was known more for ferocity than intelligence, and the absence of black players from that position was due more to a paucity of black players in general, than a particular desire to omit them from that position. After Schmidt, the position became geared more towards “thinking athletes”, because the middle linebacker not only had to maintain his ferocity, but also was responsible for calling out the basic pre-snap defensive formations with their myriad variations, and then also keep track of dozens of related items after the ball was snapped. In many ways, the middle linebacker could be compared to a general in the army, and with these new “cerebral” requirements the position became the province of white players like Chuck Bednarick, Sam Huff and Ray Nitchske. Each of these players were viewed as stars in the league and white players exclusively dominated the positon through the late -'60s.

However in 1967, Willie Lanier, a black player drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs showed that a black man had the intelligence and leadership abilities to play the position. By Lanier’s fourth year he led a Chief’s defense that enabled them to become the champions of Super Bowl IV and in the process established himself as arguably the best middle linebackers in the game. Lanier not only opened the door for other black NFL key functionaries as middle linebacker, but in subsequent decades players like Mike Singletary, Harry Carson, London Fletcher, Ray Lewis and Jonathan Vilma would all be the middle linebackers on Super Bowl championship defenses. By performing his duties outstandingly, Lanier’s accomplishments struck a solid blow at the notion that blacks could not be effective in key functionary roles in the NFL, while also anticipating the gains that blacks made in the American military in the '70s.

Two of the first beneficiaries of Lanier’s exceptional handling of a key functionary role were quarterbacks James Harris and Joe Gilliam. Similar to the evolution of the middle linebacker position, the quarterback position evolved to the prime leadership position on the football field due to the play of Sid Luckman and Sammy Baugh in the '40s. Over the past 70 years, the position has grown even more complex, to the point where the quarterback’s pre-snap responsibilities are an initial read of the defensive formation, calling out an adjustment to that formation, going through secondary and tertiary reads of the defense, and either deciding to go with the initial play that was called, or “audibilizing” that call and making another, and to top things off, all of this must be done within 30 seconds to avoid being penalized for taking too long. Once the ball is snapped, if a passing play is called, then the quarterback has has about three seconds to find an open receiver within the context of the play. This is called "going through your progressions". In addition to these intelligence requirements, the quarterback also has to exhibit poise to handle high pressure situations as well as personal traits that enable other players to follow his lead. So, if a middle linebacker is like an army general, then the quarterback can be likened to a high profile politician.

Though Willie Thrower and Marlin Briscoe each performed quarterbacking duties in the '50s and '60s respectively, they were assigned those duties because their team’s starting quarterback was injured. In contrast to Thrower and Briscoe, Harris and Gilliam were named team starters because the coach believed in their abilities and not because of an injury to a white quarterback. Ironically, both men got that vote of confidence in 1974, but to mixed results. While Harris led his team to the NFC championship game and was named to the NFL Pro Bowl as one of the games better quarterbacks that one season, Gilliam started five games that year for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but ultimately was benched in favor of future Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Bradshaw would help the Steelers win the Super Bowl that year.

Nonetheless, it's remarkable that both men were given chances to succeed in the same year, and even more remarkable that they had a legitimate opportunity to play against one another in the Super Bowl. Had that occurred, it would have been a quantum leap forward for blacks as key functionaries. Unfortunately it didn’t occur, and instead highlights the racial attitudes of the time--in order to sustain oneself in a key functionary position, a black person could still not afford to be average or just slightly above average. Harris and Gilliam were given chances, but their play didn’t sustain their careers as starters and it wasn’t until the '80s that the league again had two bona fide starting quarterbacks at the same time: Doug Williams and Warren Moon.

Williams’ and Moon’s paths to the NFL were diagonally opposed. In Williams’ case, he was the first black quarterback ever chosen in the first round of the NFL draft, given his draft status, it was a foregone conclusion that he would be a starter and Williams was in fact a starter for the first five years of his career, but his play was nondescript, at best. Yet his ability to be a multi-year starter despite mediocre play can be viewed as a positive, for it spoke to a degree of tolerance and patience that wasn’t afforded Harris or Gilliam nearly a decade earlier. In fact after his five years with the Tampa Bay Bucaneers, Williams didn’t take another snap in the NFL until he joined the Washington Redskins four years later. Within two years he led his team to a Super Bowl victory and was named Super Bowl MVP.

This was an historical breakthrough to say the least, but the true significance of Williams’ career is not measured by his Super Bowl MVP but instead by the relatively long but mediocre career that he had, because in it’s mediocrity, Williams’ career allowed for black quarterbacks to be journeymen, meaning they could be mediocre for most of their careers in the same way that the majority of white quarterbacks were equally mediocre.

Next Page





What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.