Donovan McNabb’s recent comments about the extra scrutiny and pressures of being a black quarterback in the NFL touched a chord with me. I’m glad he had the courage to speak his truths to power. Too often, black athletes don’t use the podium to speak truth to power. Michael Jordan’s famous comment that “even Republicans buy basketball shoes” comes to mind.
The reactions of young quarterbacks Vince Young and Jason Campbell were typical of what most sports fans would probably want to hear – that all quarterbacks are under the pressure cooker, that there is no such prejudice anymore, that you deal with it or get out. However, these reactions belie a certain naiveté about the institutional racism still prevalent in sports and in society in general. It also speaks to an ignorance of the sacrifices made by pioneers such as “Jefferson Street” Joe Gilliam and Doug Williams.
Why is it that in a game in which 75% of the athletes are black, there are only 3 or 4 black starting quarterbacks? For years, we’ve known that NFL owners and coaches questioned the ability to blacks to lead, to be coaches or quarterbacks or point guards in major football and basketball. How will we know that we do not have such prejudice anymore? Maybe when leaders such as Donovan McNabb no longer espouse such beliefs, we’ll have gotten there.
The greater issue here is the opportunity to achieve success commensurate with one’s abilities and work ethic. This is what makes institutional and societal racism so difficult to see and to distinguish. Just because there aren’t public lynching’s anymore does not mean that we have rid ourselves of racism in this country. Instead, in many walks of life, there now exists a glass ceiling.
When I was little, my father, in his many exhortations to me to do better in scholastics, told me that I would have to be twice as good as any white person in order to do well. I never even questioned why that had to be the case. Only twice as good. I wonder how much better Donovan McNabb has had to be in order to reach the level of success he’s enjoyed.