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Jewish World Review Jan. 31, 2001 / 8 Shevat, 5761

Paul Campos

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Consumer Reports

Racial imbalance
not always racist -- IN THEIR OWN WAY, Tony Banks and Jason Sehorn each symbolize both the need for and the problems with race consciousness in our society.

Until this past October, Banks had been the starting quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens. After a stretch of poor play he lost his starting job to Trent Dilfer -- and thus it was Dilfer who reaped the rewards of the spotlight in Sunday's Super Bowl.

What was most notable about this story was that it wasn't a story. You see, Banks is black and Dilfer is white. Until recently there were so few black quarterbacks in the NFL that the mere fact that a black starting quarterback had been replaced on a team that went on to win a championship would have been a notable -- and in all likelihood controversial -- event.

By the 1970s, black players made up more than half of NFL team rosters -- and yet with a couple of intermittent exceptions there were no black quarterbacks in the league. Today there are more than 20 -- enough so that someone like Tony Banks' race is no longer an issue.

In retrospect, it seems clear that race and racism had a great deal to do with the failure to integrate pro football's most symbolically significant position. The implicit (and occasionally explicit) explanation for the absence of black quarterbacks was that black players lacked the "intelligence" and/or "leadership skills" required by the NFL's marquee position. College teams with pro-style offenses didn't use black quarterbacks, who were relegated to offensive systems in which they were essentially glorified running backs.

If a black quarterback with NFL potential did emerge from a college program, NFL teams would either convert him to another position, or exile him to the Canada, where the color of a quarterback's skin produced a less neurotic response among the evaluators of football talent.

A striking illustration of these trends is provided by the career of Warren Moon, who was forced to spend the first six seasons of his professional career north of the border. When the NFL's informal apartheid began to break down in the 1980s, Moon was at last permitted to compete for an NFL job. Despite his early exile, Moon has gone on to compile career statistics that have made him one of the most prolific passers in the history of the league.

On the other hand, quarterback was not the only position on the football field in which race seemed to play a role. It was also true that, by the 1970s, white players had become very rare at several positions, most notably cornerback. Indeed, for many years there was not a single white cornerback in the entire NFL.

That is why Jason Sehorn of the New York Giants is in a sense Tony Banks' counterpart. Sehorn is at present the only white cornerback in the NFL.

Have white players been victimized by the same sort of racist thinking that kept blacks from becoming quarterbacks? It seems unlikely. Cornerback is the one position at which speed is at the greatest premium, and a glance at almost any track meet will confirm that the overwhelming majority of Americans who possess true sprinter speed are of West African descent.

Still, it is possible that the number of white cornerbacks is even lower than it might otherwise be because of overgeneralizations about the talents of white players. Even so, any coach will confirm that by far the most important factor in the dominance of black players at certain positions is that a huge proportion of the fastest football players are and will continue to be black.

The lessons of all this for arguments about race-conscious remedies are complex. Sometimes racial imbalance is a product of racism, and sometimes it isn't. Those who argue for affirmative action must assume -- or at least hope -- that we can learn to tell the difference. matter.

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, Paul Campos