Daunte Culpepper has learned that African-American quarterbacks remain targets of unfair treatment.
Sunday, December 14, 2003
Early in 1999, months before he officially would become an instant millionaire, Daunte Culpepper commenced a regimen designed to prepare him for the NFL.
He had workouts for his body and meetings for his bank account. But Mason Ashe, Culpepper's attorney and agent, had another lesson in mind.
"He hadn't met the resistance that most black quarterbacks had had," says Ashe, a cousin of deceased tennis legend Arthur Ashe. "In his development, he didn't really feel like anybody ever held him back, no one tried to talk him out of being a quarterback."
Growing up in Ocala, Fla., and playing at the relatively unknown University of Central Florida, Culpepper dominated his competition, rarely drawing disapproval. So Ashe sought to teach his client about the history of African-American quarterbacks, arranging for Culpepper to get those lessons from one of the NFL's pioneering players, James Harris.
Culpepper has been forced to reflect on those conversations this season.
In September, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh said on an ESPN show that the media were "very desirous that a black quarterback do well" and that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb got credit he "didn't deserve," statements some viewed as racially insensitive. Meanwhile, Vikings coach Mike Tice said he has received a couple of racially charged letters directed at Culpepper every month this season. Tice turned three letters over to the NFL's security office, although no one is optimistic that they can be traced to a person because none were addressed.
"It is an issue, and I'm disappointed that it's an issue," Tice said. "It's a shame that that has to come into play, when you have a young man of Daunte's character."
Despite leading the NFC with a passer rating of 94.6, Culpepper has endured considerable criticism on talk radio and online forums. That he has been booed at the Metrodome alarms neither Culpepper nor Tice both acknowledge that's a reality for any starting quarterback but Tice believed race entered the equation after the team returned from its game in San Diego.
"Whether he's black or white, I think he'd have to deal with being booed," Tice said. "But to take a game where the defense gives up 42 points and to get letters that say he was to blame, when he actually kept us in it? That to me would definitely indicate that there's a problem."
Culpepper says he refuses to allow those letters to faze him.
"I feel if I let it bother me, then that's what they want," he says. "I think people who do stuff like that are cowards, that they would never say anything to my face. If they knew the game and sport we play, they wouldn't feel that way, because I leave everything on the field every week, and I try to prepare myself the best that I can every week."
Ashe, however, believes racism in Minnesota is rare, noting Culpepper gets "love" whenever he's seen in public around the Twin Cities.
"There is an isolated faction of people who are mean-spirited," he said. "There are other cities where the factions are larger. But (Minnesota) is not an exception."
Neither is the rest of the country, author and sociologist Harry Edwards added.
"Rush Limbaugh was reflecting a cultural theme in American society, that the black quarterback can't get it done," said Edwards, an African-American who organized the black power demonstration at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City and authored several books about race and sports. "African-American quarterbacks and coaches are on an 18-inch chain. The minute they go off the expected trail or path, they're jerked back. But again, what else is new?"
In 1953, Willie Thrower of the Chicago Bears replaced an erratic George Blanda, becoming the first African-American quarterback to play in an NFL game.
Thrower completed three of eight passes for 27 yards as the Bears lost to the San Francisco 49ers 35-28.
It was 15 years before the second African-American quarterback played, and Marlin Briscoe, a 14th-round draft choice of the Denver Broncos, did so only because of injuries to the two quarterbacks ahead of him. And despite setting several Broncos rookie records that season, including most touchdown passes in a season, Briscoe was released that offseason. He later said coach Lou Saban didn't want a black quarterback.
Briscoe switched to receiver, and he played nine NFL seasons, winning two Super Bowl rings with the Miami Dolphins.
"There were some great black quarterbacks. But most blacks smartly decided they would get a heck of a better shot at wide receiver or running back," says Jon Entine, who is white and authored the controversial book, "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We are Afraid to Talk About It." "The Michael Vick of 1972 became a cornerback."
Former Vikings quarterback Warren Moon said that's one reason he decided not to run at full speed when he was clocked in the 40-yard dash coming out of the University of Washington in 1978.
"We get penalized for being good athletes," he said. "I would slow down at the tape so I wouldn't have too fast a 40 time because I was already hearing that they were going to put me at another position."
Moon, the 1978 Rose Bowl most valuable player, went undrafted in the 1978 NFL draft while Doug Williams, who fit the mold of the traditional drop-back passer, was selected in the first round. Moon headed to the Canadian Football League, because he was allowed to play quarterback, then later joined the NFL, where he would have an illustrious career.
Moon said he wasn't drafted because NFL teams weren't patient with African-American quarterbacks at the time.
"If a black quarterback could not play for you right away, then you did not draft him high to develop him," Moon said. "Even though we're going to get opportunities, we're going to be expected to be successful earlier. But (NFL teams) wouldn't draft you in the (third) round and say, 'This is my quarterback of the future,' a la Joe Montana."
In 1969, Harris made clear to NFL teams that he would not switch from quarterback. He went largely overlooked, until the Buffalo Bills selected him in the eighth round. This headline in the Buffalo Evening News welcomed him, "A 6-4 Negro QB, Harris, Drafted 8th by the Bills."
From there, African-American quarterbacks slowly became a greater part of the NFL landscape, including Joe Gilliam of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but Edwards said that's not because of the NFL's progressiveness.
"That did not come about as a result of some groundswell of progressive racial thought in American football, some groundswell of racial idealism," said Edwards, a player personnel development consultant for the San Francisco 49ers. "What we had is a situation where the defensive players and the defensive coordinators gave the NFL the black quarterback, just as surely as the lion gave the antelope its speed.
"It was a process generated out of the competitive survival necessities of the situation.
"The black quarterback is about good football and good business. It also happened to be good brotherhood."
In 1989, Entine collaborated with Tom Brokaw to write and produce the award-winning documentary "Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction." Entine also has written about African-American quarterbacks for numerous publications, including GQ. In his research, he highlights the "code words" for criticizing African-American quarterbacks.
"The stereotype that they've had to face for years is that they're not smart enough to run an offense," he said. "It's a stigma they can't shake."
Because of the nature of the position, Entine said someone with an agenda could selectively find enough evidence to vilify any quarterback. But he added that the intelligence of African-Americans is typically targeted when they struggle.
"Look at Brett Favre. It's been a mistake-filled year for him, where he's going from one erratic game to one good game," Entine said. "But when Favre throws an interception, you don't hear people say his IQ dropped 10 points. But for some reason, they use that equation with the black quarterbacks."
Chicago Bears quarterback Kordell Stewart declined to comment for this story. But in October, following Limbaugh's comments, he spoke out about the double standards in the NFL. Stewart pointed out Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has not, in his five NFL seasons, led his team to an AFC championship game but escapes a lot of criticism.
Stewart also noted that the Packers supported Favre through a substance-abuse problem and that the New York Giants allowed Kerry Collins to reinvent himself in spite of a DUI conviction and racial issues with other teams.
"Nothing against quarterbacks who aren't black, but why can't we be given those same opportunities?" Stewart was quoted as asking in the Chicago Sun-Times. "In order for us to learn, we have to be given an opportunity to fail and fail more than once."
With Pittsburgh last year, Stewart was benched after three starts, and he was released during the offseason. A year earlier, he was the team MVP, led the Steelers to the AFC championship game and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl.
"The standards are not the same, even though the job is the same," said Williams, the Grambling State head coach who was the first African-American to start, and win, a Super Bowl. "(African-American quarterbacks) are under a bigger microscope. The standards are different because most of the time, it's in the eyes of the beholder."
Moon said there has been progress but that an "undercurrent" of racism in society remains, which affects African-American quarterbacks.
"It's just a part of what's out there in the fabric of our society," he said. "It's too bad we have to deal with it, but we have to continue to deal with it. But I'm glad we have an opportunity to play that position and show what we can do."
Added Entine: "Anyone who says we see athletes as just athletes is very naive. I don't think we'll ever grow past this. I just never heard anyone say, 'Cade McNown is a bad white quarterback.' But they somehow always attack the blackness of an African-American quarterback who is struggling in the same way."
The attacks come in various forms, some very hurtful. Williams said he could fill a book with the racist letters he received in Tampa. One season, though, he remembers getting a large box. Inside he found a rotten watermelon. Attached was a note that read, "Throw this one to them (racial slur) and see if they can catch this."
Williams laughs at the recollection, noting he grew up in Louisiana, around the Ku Klux Klan.
"I was conditioned to that," he said. "But the kids now, most of them grew up in an integrated school, where they were living the dream of Martin Luther King, where they were able to hold hands and sing and hug each other up until a certain age. They didn't understand that stuff like this went on."
Moon said he has received death threats. But he was most troubled after a loss, when he played for the Houston Oilers. He sat in his locker, and his 9-year-old son came to him, with tears streaming down his face.
"I thought he was upset we lost the game," Moon recalled. "But the thing he was most upset about was the names I was being called in the stands, and he asked me why I was being called those names. That's where it was tough."
Last season, before the AFC championship game, Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair received hate mail vial overnight mail, reportedly from a Titans fan. During a teleconference Wednesday, McNair said he dismisses such correspondence, and he added that, overall, he has been treated fairly.
"I'm not considering myself an African-American quarterback I'm just considering myself a quarterback," McNair said. "I think I've been treated fine and hope I continue to be treated that way."
Bob Lurtsema, editor of Viking Update, the team's official weekly newspaper, says his publication has never received any correspondence regarding Culpepper's race.
"With my paper, I can honestly say that hasn't been an issue," he said. "I've not received one letter or comment like that."
Moon said he fondly recalls his Minnesota experience, noting he dealt with racial issues the most in Houston. But he added that he was better at "sheltering" himself when he joined the Vikings, in his 11th NFL season.
"To this day, I get more compliments from people who were Minnesota fans than anywhere else I played," he said. "I went through a tough time in my personal life, with my wife, in Minnesota, and still I didn't feel like the fans turned their back on me that much."
(In 1995, Moon was charged with misdemeanor assault against his wife, Felicia, but he was acquitted by a jury.)
Larry Fitzgerald, the longtime sports editor of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, an African-American newspaper, says race matters in this state.
"Look at the culture of talk radio, sports radio, and things that have happened in the black community," he said. "Those are all indications of the problems."
Fitzgerald, who co-hosts a Monday morning radio show with Culpepper on KMOJ-FM, offered an example of how Culpepper is subjected to greater pressure because of his race.
"In 1978, Fran Tarkenton threw 32 interceptions," he said. "I was here, and I don't remember him getting the criticism Daunte is now."
That season, the Vikings went 8-7-1, and they lost their first playoff game at the Metrodome, 34-10. But talk radio wasn't as pervasive then.
This season, 12 African-American quarterbacks have started at least one game for 12 NFL teams. McNair is considered the leading MVP candidate, and several African-American quarterbacks, including Culpepper and McNabb, are leading their teams toward the playoffs.
Future Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman said he would be "naive" to believe race isn't a factor anymore, but he added that it no longer is an NFL issue.
"There's a lot at stake," said Aikman, a lead analyst for Fox Sports. "I don't think people outside the game understand how much pressure there is on owners, players and coaches to win. So I feel strongly that the people with the decision-making powers are going to play the players they feel give them the best opportunity to give them success. I don't believe race comes into that equation."
Williams isn't so sure.
"I would like to say we've come a long way, and if you look at the fact that we have more African-American quarterbacks in the league, it's easy to say we've come a long way," he said. "But we might not have come as far as we think we have."