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John Eisenberg on the Campbell Conversations

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John Eisenberg
John Eisenberg

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is John Eisenberg. He's a former sports columnist for the Baltimore Sun and the author of numerous books on sports. And he has a new book out titled, “Rocket Men: The Black Quarterbacks Who Revolutionized Pro Football”. John, welcome to the program.

John Eisenberg: Well, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

GR: Well, we appreciate having you on. So, let me just start with a very basic question about this, and then we'll get into some other things as we go. But, you know, there were many black players, even some black stars in the NFL well before there were black quarterbacks. And from today's perspective, looking back on it, it seems kind of odd, perhaps, but what were the reasons for the lag at that particular position for African-Americans?

JE: Well, the lag, yes, and this is sort of really the brunt of my book is about. Is that coming out of the 50’s, the 60’s, when the NFL reintegrated after World War Two, there was a lot of sort of, there was a lot of, the only way to put it, it was racist ideology about what, you know, black leadership, about what they felt black quarterbacks could handle n the NFL. The question was, were they smart enough to run? The offenses were getting very complex. Are they smart enough to run a complex offense? Will they work hard enough? Will they come through in the clutch? Will they be disciplined? Will they lead? Just awful stuff based on nothing because there had been no one on the field to disprove them. But nonetheless, it was really baked in to the sort of the groupthink of the NFL. So it really was a hard thing to overcome. So, plenty of black players at wide receiver, running back, anywhere but, quote unquote, thinking positions, which would be quarterback, middle linebacker, center where you had to call signals sometimes on the field, there was just flat out skepticism about their ability to handle it.

GR: And so, why did those views change regarding that position? I mean, was it views about race more generally or was it views about race and sports more specifically, or some combination of that?

JE: Well, what it took was, you know, I think what it took was seeing those thoughts disproved on the field slowly but surely. Certainly as the late 60’s in the civil rights movement certainly brought to the fore the, you know, African-Americans not wanting to deal with the status quo and certainly pushing harder at certain things, which was fine. And what that included was pushing back against some of this ideology and it helped get some guys on the field in the beginning. And so, you know, that definitely helped. But nothing helped more than, I mean it was baked in there pretty hard was seeing guys get on the field and play. And just to, I'm talking about James Harris with the Los Angeles Rams in the 1970’s and then guys like Warren Moon in the 1980’s. It's really the first generation, Warren Moon, Doug Williams, Randall Cunningham that just got onto the field, succeeded and showed these teams and the league that those thoughts you had are just wrong.

GR: And you know, one thing that occurred to me in thinking about this was that the position of quarterback is often, not always, but often the face of the franchise. And I wondered if that played a role in the prejudice and particularly the prejudice lingering for that position in addition to everything else, that they didn't, owners and coaches maybe didn't, general managers didn't want to have an African-American be the face of the franchise. One thing to be a star wide receiver, but you know, did that play a role?

JE: It absolutely played a role. We were talking about the basically the fact that quarterback was the glamor position in football, which happened as offenses in the 50’s and the 60’s when offenses evolved and passing got real popular and it was so dramatic and all that. So, yes, it worked against black quarterbacks for sure. I mean, all the owners are all white. And, you know, they're the ones that are, they own the franchise. And as Leigh Steinberg, the agent told me, especially going back to that era, the owners, they wanted the face of the franchise to be someone they could take around, take to the country club, you know, we're stereotyping here, but you know, to show them off, show them around. And were they comfortable with a black person in that role? I think the answer is no. They quite simply, maybe some were, I hate to paint with a broad brush on any of this, but because there are always exceptions. But, you know, with if I must paint with a broad brush, yes. The owners of the NFL teams were afraid to grant that sort of prominence to black players.

GR: And you mentioned some of the early pioneers, Harris, Moon, Cunningham. Did that constitute like a breakthrough moment, like an a-ha moment, or was the progress toward what we see today more gradual, and these were sort of the first guys to crack the code?

JE: That's a great question because it is not, there is no a-ha moment in this story. This is not Jackie Robinson in 1947 crossing the white line and everyone, and nothing is ever the same after that and it's a single day you can pinpoint and it's even a holiday, you know, that everybody celebrates in baseball. This is not that. What this is a very, imagine a door very, very slowly opening, that's what this is. And it was the first pushes by, there's, you know, a lot of guys along the way just gave it the tiniest of pushes to get it started. And there's a bunch of moments, basically, Jackie Robinson was one, there's a bunch of moments. And whether it be just even getting onto the field, getting a chance to play, starting a playoff game, throwing a touchdown pass in a key situation there, there are there were just tons of them. And so all of them, I think, contributed to ever so slowly opening that door wider and wider.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with John Eisenberg, a sportswriter and the author of a new book titled, “Rocket Men: The Black Quarterbacks Who Revolutionized Pro Football”. On that point you were just making, John, there is one moment, at least in my mind, and you correct me if I'm wrong, because maybe I'm, you know, inventing things in the past, but I remember Doug Williams in the Super Bowl for what then was the Washington Redskins and that's another topic for another show I suppose (laughter). But I believe he was the MVP in that Super Bowl. If my memory is correct on that, would that have been at least something close to one of those sort of big moments?

JE: Yes, out of all these little tiny, I said there's a litany of the many, many moments, that is the biggest. That definitely constitutes the signature moment, the closest approximation to that. And that is Doug Williams winning, not only winning, being the first black quarterback in the Super Bowl, first starting quarterback, first, and then he wins. And not only does he win, he wins in a landslide against the Denver Broncos and John Elway, who was emblematic, great quarterback, he’s in the Hall of Fame, but he was everything that the prototype of quarterbacks had been to that point. Big, strong, fast, white, first round draft pick and Doug Williams you know they win by almost five touchdowns and Williams is MVP. And, you know, this happened in 1988 so, you know, I would say this, it's not ancient history. It happened a while ago yes, but it's not that long ago that Doug Williams doing what he did really disproved, really showed a lot of people there was unbelievable skepticism that you just cannot believe all these years later. Could a black quarterback win, win a Super Bowl. So for him to get out there and play like that in that game and to win huge pressure on him to come through, it is the moment that I'm sure changed more closed minds than any along the way.

GR: It's funny, I mean I have to say, we do not on the Campbell Conversations endorse gambling, but I will say one of the reasons why I remember that game, among others, is I won several cases of beer from that Super Bowl. (laughter)

JE: (laughter) Good for you!

GR: And I remember when the first possession was the Broncos and L.A. threw a long pass either for a touchdown or set up a touchdown, the friends I was watching it with sort of started laughing at me saying, ha ha there you go, I said just wait, just wait. And that was pretty much the only thing Denver did that entire game. So let me ask, let's go to the present now. What's the current breakdown of quarterbacks in the league in terms of race? And how does it compare with the racial mix of players in the league more generally?

JE: Well, there's been a sea change in the last, I'd say, 10 to 15 years. Along the way to get from Doug Williams to where we are now, you go through some great moments. You go through Michael Vick playing in 2000, you go through, you know ,several other guys not quite as well. Donovan McNabb took the, you know, from Syracuse, you know, took the Eagles to the Super Bowl. But where we are now, things have changed dramatically in the last five years, I would say. And this past weekend, the first weekend of the new NFL season, there were 14 black starting quarterbacks, easily the most in history. And the NFL put out a news release on its social media graphics and called attention to it. So I was surprised to see that, the NFL saying, look, look, look at this. And but anyway, it is noteworthy in that there was just so few for so long and now almost half the teams in the league, so that's a little under, so the general the black population in the NFL is about 58 to 60% of the players. And players of color is closer to 70. And so it's still behind the other positions but it's gaining ground quite rapidly.

GR: And I'm going to throw you a curveball so to speak which indicates where I'm going with this question. And that is, the other great American spectator sport obviously is baseball. And baseball has many players of color, but comparatively fewer African-Americans. And that's been a source of writing and analysis for baseball. Why is that, that that's happened to baseball, but it hasn't happened in the NFL? And in the NFL you have, as you just pointed out, when you did the numbers, most of the players of color are black, they're African-American. In baseball, that's not the case. So what's going on?

JE: Well, I think a lot of it, that's a really interesting subject when you compare the two and what's going on with baseball. And I have written a lot of baseball and I'm in Baltimore where the Orioles are. And certainly it's up close and personal for me. And, you know, it's really a story about baseball, I think more than anything what's going on there. They have failed to, baseball has really suffered from a lot of things that I think, you know, the modern American kid, you know, maybe wants a little more action. And you're talking to someone, I love baseball, but I think that kid, you know, basketball has gotten to be extremely popular, you know, in that demographic. And football is ,there's no other way to put it more popular. I mean, watching NFL football and football…baseball is nicknamed the national pastime but it's football. The TV ratings bear that out every year. And so there's just more prominence. And I think all of that has caused baseball to suffer in terms of getting kids interested in playing. There's a real initiative in baseball right now, they're really trying to get going and especially in the inner city neighborhoods to revive it. And I hope that's successful. But it's definitely become an uphill climb and kind of shocking also in baseball, not to be forgotten, the rise of the, you know, the Latin American players, the Spanish speaking players has had a huge impact. And so it's just a smaller piece of the pie, the African-American population.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with John Eisenberg. He's a sportswriter and he's got a new book out titled, “Rocket Men: The Black Quarterbacks Revolutionized Pro Football” and we've been discussing his book. So looking into the future, you see the demographic trends in the NFL, do you think it's possible to imagine a league in which almost all the players are black? Do you think we might be headed toward that?

JE: Well, that is a large question and a large issue. And I don't know that the number has gone up in the last 5 to 10 years, I don't have those numbers in front of me right now. The real spike in black participation in NFL football occurred, the league was all white from 1934 to through World War Two, just like baseball. It slowly started to reintegrate after World War Two and that accelerated in the 60’s, the 70’s, the 80’s you went from just a trickle to 30% to 40%. And then by the new century, the 2000’s, it's up to past 50 and now close to 60. But the rate of acceleration has slowed down and there are other players, you know, there's Polynesian there's a number of different influx of talent just in that regard. So, you know, I don't know all African-American, I don't think so, but certainly it's already majority and you know, I don't know that that will be shrinking much.

GR: One of the things that I wonder about that comes out of the question that I just asked you, and it's kind of a more sensitive or delicate question. Is I guess I'm wondering, if we kind of head more toward that in the future, it seems like it might create kind of a strange and perhaps uncomfortable dynamic, where you'd have a lot of white people watching a lot of black people play what is a violent collision sport against each other. And it kind of almost reminds me of the gladiators type of thing. Do you have any thoughts about that?

JE: I think you're not wrong to envision the possibility of that. And already I think in some regards where there in terms of the gladiatorial aspect of it and the fact that really, that's something that we haven't mentioned, there's a problem it appears with head trauma. And, you know, that is coming to the fore and the people, you know, willing to take risks to play, that, you know, it'll come down to a question of who is willing to do that, who has other options in life besides taking that gamble. So, already I find that you're dealing with sort of a hungry, hungry viewing population just loving every second of it and gambling on it and everything. But the people who are playing yes, a majority of them are African-American and you know, some from disadvantaged backgrounds and this is their option for escaping that. This is their best option, to actually make good money. And so, yes, it's sort of disquieting, the whole thing. And when you throw the head to head trauma in there, it's something that I know that I struggle with occasionally on Sunday afternoons.

GR: Well, and I can tell you, I have a very good friend who loves football, but because of the head trauma he decided last year he was going to stop watching it. And so he hasn't watched it. Now he's a he's a Giants fan is probably just as well for him that he didn't watch last week.

JE: (laughter)

GR: We'll see where his team goes from there. Let me ask you a completely different question, but in the same topic is, have there been any salary trends for black quarterbacks? I mean, we know that the stars today are making, you know, just as big money as anybody else, but what's been the salary trend for black quarterbacks?

JE: Well, I don't think the salary trend is I would go farther than as you depicted. I would say, yes, they're making as much as anyone else, they're making more. The really, really top, I believe last year four of the top five highest paid players were black quarterbacks. It was the ones that had most recently signed contracts, Aaron Rodgers being the highest paid. And then the next four was, I can't remember the four, Deshaun Watson, Kyler Murray. And that's already changed this year. Lamar Jackson has signed a new contract, it's always changing. But the big money right now, a lot of it in football, is going to these star quarterbacks and these young star black quarterbacks. So that is a trend, and, you know, that is a trend that goes noted by the African-American population. It's like, look who's making the money now, there's some real pride attached to that. As far as general salaries for black quarterbacks, I would say that they're in the same situation as the rest of the players. And that is, you know, it depends on the team and depends on the salary cap and I don't know if they're making more or less than anyone else. I don't think there's a situation where they're making less than the white quarterbacks. I do not believe it extends to that.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media and my guest is the sportswriter John Eisenberg. So I was wondering if you knew of any other professional sports that have been the gold standard for racial equity, you know, that really are the models that perhaps the NFL should have or could still be looking to.

JE: Well, you certainly are, I mean, the NBA, professional basketball has going back to the 70’s even. What you saw from that from that point forward, not only a lot of African-American players, but coaches, black coaches and sometimes general managers and decision makers. So the NBA has been ahead of the other sports, I would say, easily in that realm. And it appears the WNBA, women's basketball also, not only what's on the court, but what's off the court. So I think you see a lot better in basketball than you do in football. And because you have to take the whole thing into consideration, not just what you're saying as the players, but who the decision makers are. And so it does appear that I mean, the NFL still lags behind in that in terms of coaching and general managers, it's really, really not a good situation.

GR: Do you see that changing any time soon? It's been I mean, gosh, it feels like this is something that has been talked about for at least 20 years now in terms of the coaches and the general managers.

JE: There has been a change in the general manager situation in the last five or six years. If you go back five or six years, I think there was one, it was Ozzie Newsome with the Baltimore Ravens. And there were no black, I'm talking about general managers and people that shape rosters. That has changed, I think it's up to eight or nine now. A lot of young guys, really sharp guys have been brought into the league in that decision making capacity, it's a great thing to see. The coaching situation remains unchanged and it is a huge problem. I'm not sure the number, it's no more than three black coaches this year and that is way low number for a league that is close to the playing population is close to 60%. And I feel like the league is at a little bit of a, but this is out in the open as you say it's been addressed the Washington Post a huge series on it last fall. And Roger Goodell the commissioner was the first to say we have to do better, but I honestly, I'm not sure the league knows what to do. They have the rule, the Rooney Rule where it forces them to interview minority candidates, that's fine. It appears to be, as it plays out, a sort of a degree of tokenism that is just not leading to more black coaches being hired. So something has to change. These owners are very hard to control. They may work together to make the NFL as successful as it is, but when it comes to their individual teams, it's hard to tell them what to do and identify some coach they want. They're not going to be talked out of it, so it's a tough situation. That's the toughest one right now, I think, for the NFL. And I'm not sure the league knows what to do about it.

GR: Well, we've got about 4 minutes left. I want to try to squeeze two questions in at the end, if I can. And in your book, you tell a lot of the stories of these black quarterbacks. You know, you talk about their past and their careers and their challenges that they faced. I was curious to know in all of those stories and the people you talked to, is there one that sticks in your mind more that you carry with you more than all the others?

JE: I carry with me the story of James Harris, who, we're going back a little bit with him. And I interviewed him for the book and he's elderly now. He was a rookie in 1969 and he just recounts an amazing tale that talks, really sums up what the black population faced trying to make it. He came from the deep South. He came out of Grambling, he played at Grambling because the major colleges wanted him to switch positions they didn't trust him at quarterback. So he plays to Grambling, he's groomed to make it. A six foot four 220 pounds, big arm, powerful guy, Dean's list, has everything. He gets drafted in the eighth round by the Buffalo Bills and he flies up to Buffalo, doesn't have a contract, doesn't have an agent. His coach, Eddie Robinson is negotiating. And he goes to the Bills and says, I need, can you give me like $20? You know, I need I need to get a sandwich. I need a little money. They gave him a job cleaning his teammates cleats in the locker room, and, was staying at the Y, this is before training camp, he was at the Y for $6 a night. O.J. Simpson, who was a rookie that year, was at the Hilton. And so just demeaned in every conceivable way. Yet he ends up starting the season opener, he's so good that he wins the job in training camp. But they benched him and he didn't really play for the Bills. And then he really didn't resurface it looked like his career was over. And then the L.A. Rams gave him a chance in the mid 70’s, and he did well. He took the Rams at two conference championship games. He was a winning quarterback, could have had a great career. But so many of his years were taken from him. Just denial by stereotype is the best way to put it. So James Harris just recounts all this, you don't have to ask him many questions, he loves to tell the stories. And so it stands out to me.

GR: Interesting. I remember him with the Rams, but I did not know his back story. We've only got about a little more than a minute left. And I got to ask you this big question at the end, so you'll have to be brief. But, look into the future now, let's look 20 years into the future. What are going to be the racial issues in the NFL that we’ll be talking about then, or maybe not necessarily racial? What are going to be the big issues for the NFL 20 years from now, do you think?

JE: The big issue, I don't know. The big issue will not be quarterbacks. It will not be the racial makeup of the league. I think we might still have a coaching situation then. As I said, they don't know how to deal with that exactly. I think the big issue in pro football 20 years from now will be head trauma. I think the facts are there for everyone to go over and it gets swept under the rug now because football is just so popular and people just want their football. But it is there, it is simmering on the back burner. And if it turns out that football is maybe perhaps not good for your health, I think that's just going to be a tough situation for the NFL. And I think that is more my opinion most likely to be the problem.

GR: Interesting. Maybe the game will evolve and start looking more like rugby or something where there's less head to head kind of contact.

JE: They're trying. If you go to practices now, they have these new-fangled helmets and they're limiting the contact and all sorts of stuff, but we'll see.

GR: Okay, we'll have to leave it there. I could talk to you for hours about this. That was John Eisenberg and again, his new book is titled, “Rocket Men: Black Quarterbacks Revolutionized Pro Football”. John this is great fun and I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

JE: Well, thanks for having me. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

GR: Great. You've been listening to the Campbell conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.