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

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.

Key Functionaries On and Off the Field

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.