And yet, in the long run, it has turned out to be that black quarterbacks are represented in the NFL at about their share of the American population, not close to their share of the NFL population, as sportswriters insisted was only logical.
Now, you might think that this evidence that blacks and whites appear to be fairly equal on a per capita basis in talent for the top job in American sports would be celebrated by the press as a triumph for diversity and equality, but nobody seems to be paying any attention to it. Hmmhmmhmm, it also might make you suspect that when people say they are for "equality" and "diversity" they aren't being sincere.
There are a lot of different ways to rate quarterbacks. The official "passer rating" includes yards per attempt, completion percentage, touchdown percentage, and interception percentage (but not yards gained rushing, yards lost being sacked, and fumbles). The average passer rating has been slowly going up over time. In 2009 it was 81.3 versus 75.1 in 1999, 73.3 in 1989, and 67.8 in 1979. (After a strong start in 2009, it faded as bad weather set in and wound up marginally lower than 2008's 81.5. But there were more outstanding quarterbacks this year, with five over 100 versus only one last year.)
Among the 32 NFL quarterbacks who averaged at least 14 pass attempts per game in 2009, the highest passer rating belonged to Drew Brees of New Orleans, followed by 40-year-old Brett Favre of Minnesota, who looked like he was going to give us another late season flurry of interceptions, but then righted ship and finished with an impressive 33 touchdowns to only 7 interceptions.
Six black quarterbacks were among the 32 busiest. Donovan McNabb of Philadelphia once again proved the best, finishing 12th in the league in passer rating. Three black quarterbacks wound up around the median -- Jason Campbell of Washington at 15th, veteran David Garrard of Jacksonville at 17th, and, revitalizing his career, Vince Young of Tennessee at 18th. Considering the amount of competition for the job, you've got to be pretty good to be about the average NFL starting quarterback.
Josh Freeman, a 21-year-old in Tampa Bay, had a predictably dire rookie season at 30. And third-year man JaMarcus Russell was last at 32. (A white quarterback named Derek Anderson of Cleveland was significantly worse than Russell -- including getting to start the next three games after going 2 for 17 on October 11 -- but Anderson didn't quite have enough pass attempts to make the cutoff.)
So, there was one somewhat above-average black starting quarterback in McNabb, three average ones, and two well below average ones.
Obviously, a quarterback's statistics are heavily dependent upon his supporting cast, but 2009 was hardly anomalous. In 2008, for instance, black quarterbacks ranked 13th, 14th, 19th, 20th, and 26th.
The peak year for black quarterbacks was 2003, the year of the Rush Limbaugh brouhaha, when black quarterbacks ranked 1st, 3rd, 7th, 16th, 21st, 24th, 26th, and 32nd. But that now appears to have been a bit of a fluke. Black quarterback talent seems to be proportional to black representation in the overall population, not to the black representation in the NFL as was widely assumed by pundits denouncing Limbaugh.
What about that 2009 New York Times Idea of the Year that "Black Quarterbacks Are Underpaid" because nobody recognizes their enormous rushing contributions? Well, David Garrard did lead quarterbacks in rushing in 2009, but only with 323 yards.
And black quarterbacks tended to get sacked a lot, with Campbell, McNabb, and Garrard in the top 10 in Sacked Yards Lost. Only Vince Young seemed to combine rushing offense with ability to avoid being sacked. And Garrard, Campbell, McNabb, and Freeman were in the top 10 in most fumbles.
The Era of the Black Rushing Quarterback (a.k.a., the Quarterback of the Future) seems to be more or less over. That doesn't bode well for the NFL career of U. of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, a white running quarterback who might have had the greatest college career ever. The NFL just grinds up running backs -- here's LaDainian Tomlinson's yards per carry average from age 27 through 30: 5.2, 4.7, 3.8, 3.3. So, combining the two roles of quarterback and running back mostly seems to physically beat down athletes before they are old enough to learn how to play quarterback effectively in the NFL.
On the rushing side, Chris Johnson of Tennessee dominated, with 2006 yards. In terms of Diversity!, there is almost zero diversity when it comes to running with the ball in the NFL, not that the media care in the slightest. As far as I can tell, the white guy with the most rushing yards was Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers in 63rd place with 316 yards.
One thing you notice looking at pictures is that NFL runnings are black not just in the sense of sociological self-identification but in terms of skin tone (e.g., I checked out Frank Gore's picture because that's not clearly a black name like, say, LaDainian Tomlinson). When you get down to 44th ranked Justin Fargas of Oakland, you finally come upon an African-American who is probably at least half white. (His Caribbean dad, Antonio Fargas, played "Huggy Bear," the pimp-informant on Starsky and Hutch, and I believe his mother is white. Fargas went to my old high school. I showed up for my 20th reunion Homecoming game at halftime, but he was already done for the night with four touchdowns -- Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be NFL running backs.)
Among receivers, overall, there was more diversity than among running backs. Whites and Hispanics are fairly well represented at tight end (e.g., Dallas Clark of Indianapolis caught 100 passes for 1106 yards and Tony Gonzales of Atlanta had his 11th straight season with at least 750 yards), but few other teams are following New England's lead in giving non-black non-tight end receivers a lot of playing time. Yet, Wes Welker, a New England receiver who is listed as a wide receiver although the term slot receiver would be more accurate, had an outstanding year despite missing 2.5 games. He led the league in receptions with 123, and was second in total yardage (1348) and in first downs (71).