Progress is progress, isn't it?

Tuesday, January 16, 2001

Bil Banks was watching football in a predominantly white sports bar last week when he heard some guys talking about the rising number of black quarterbacks in the National Football League.

"It's great how African-Americans over time have developed the skills to play the position,'' one bar patron remarked. Banks, a professor of African-American studies at UC Berkeley, shook his head. "What do you say to that?'' he asked me over the phone the other day. "The man said it as if blacks had finally worked hard enough and now were in the position to show the intelligence and other qualities necessary for the job.''

In the NFL playoffs this weekend, five of the 12 starting quarterbacks were black. Pick up any sports section in the country and you'll see the story. The "Year of the Black Quarterback,'' they're calling the season, heralding an era of broken barriers and fresh perspectives.

It has reminded me of 1992's "Year of the Women.'' Six women had been elected to the United States Senate that year. The good news was it was the highest number ever; the bad news was it was the highest number ever. We were celebrating the fact that women would compose 12 percent of a Senate that governs a country that is 51 percent female.

Similarly, we're celebrating that, in a league that is 70 percent African-Americans, blacks now fill 25 percent of all starting quarterback jobs (eight of 31).

Yet progress is progress. Just two years ago, only one playoff team started a black quarterback. When Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl in 1988, race dominated every interview. One excited reporter actually asked him, "How long have you been a black quarterback?''

All-Pro wide receiver Jerry Rice speaks carefully when asked about the increasing number of black quarterbacks. "I'm not going to say it was racism, but coaches and people in general didn't see blacks as quarterbacks,'' he said the other day from his home. "The way these guys are playing, they're saying a lot by what they're doing - that black people are capable of taking on the leadership and the pressure that goes with the position.''

For years, whites have conceded physicality to blacks, accepting their dominance in track and field, basketball, boxing, the so-called "athletic'' positions in football. But the more intellectual positions, such as quarterback - and coach and general manager - have remained in the hands of whites. Some say that the embracing of blacks as quarterbacks could signal a shift in some of white America's assumptions about race.

"How significant this is in the big picture, I have no idea,'' says David Meggessey, the NFL Players Union west coast director. "But it's cracking another stereotype, and that can't be a bad thing.'' Banks agrees, but with a caveat. "Let's not kid ourselves that it means much beyond football,'' says Banks, author of the 1997 book, "Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life.'' In other words, we're not suddenly going to see a surge in the number of black CEOs because there are more black quarterbacks. We're not likely even to see a surge in the number of black head coaches; there now are just three among the 31 NFL teams and no black general managers.

The good news of this playoff season is that African-Americans are getting to play the glamorous and admired role of steely nerved, heady leading man on the football field. The bad news is that, in 2001, it is news at all.