Throwing While Black

By Sean Carroll | July 30, 2006 1:03 pm

Warren Moon always wanted to be a quarterback. He had all the physical tools, as well as tremendous leadership abilities and a fierce determination to win. Only one problem: he was black. As stupid as it may sound, not too long ago conventional wisdom held that black people couldn’t be quarterbacks — they were athletes, not thinkers.

Moon was a successful high school football player in LA, despite playing in the kind of atmosphere where you received death threats from gang members playing for the opposing team. But he couldn’t get a scholarship offer from a major college. Well, that’s not exactly right — he did get offers, but only under the condition that he switch positions to running back or defensive back. One school, Arizona State, recruited him as a quarterback, but rescinded their scholarship offer after they signed two other (white) quarterbacks.

Warren Moon Determined to play the position he wanted to play, Moon went to junior college for a year, where he personally sent game films to major programs throughout the country. He was finally offered a scholarship by the University of Washington, where the team had been plagued by racial tensions. At UW he was the target of relentless taunting from fans, and his own teammates expressed skepticism of his ability. Nevertheless, in his senior year Moon led the Huskies to their first Rose Bowl in fifteen years, where they beat Michigan in a stunning upset.

Moon was named MVP of the Rose Bowl, but when the NFL draft came around, nobody was interested. He wasn’t invited to any combines or private workouts for teams. Word was out that he refused to convert to defensive back or tight end, which were the only positions at which NFL teams would consider him. As Moon put it, “The quarterback is the face of the organization, and white owners still weren’t ready for that face to be a black man. The owners wanted somebody to take to the country club, and they weren’t ready for that to be a black man.”

Undaunted, he signed with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League. In six years in the CFL, he led the Eskimos to five Grey Cup championships, winning two championship-game MVP awards, and set a league record for passing yards in 1983. He was inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame in 2001.

The NFL finally caught on, and Moon was signed by the Houston Oilers in 1984. He and his family were again the subject of death threats, and his wife and children were eventually forced to watch the games from a private stadium box. After one game in 1991, on the verge of signing a new contract, he had to explain to his nine-year-old son what it meant when a fan in the stands had yelled “I can’t believe they gave that f—— n—– $14.3 million.”

Moon persevered, setting the Oilers club record for passing yards in his first year, but didn’t really come into his own until his third year in the NFL. He led the league in passing in 1990 and 1991, joining Dan Fouts and Dan Marino as the only quarterbacks to ever post consecutive 4,000-yard seasons. He went to the Pro Bowl nine times. By the time he retired in 2001, he was third all-time in NFL passing yardage behind Marino and John Elway, despite having played his first six years in the CFL. If he had played in the NFL for those six years, throwing for 2,500 yard per year (an extremely conservative estimate), he would have finished his career as the league’s all-time leading passer by a substantial margin.

Warren Moon wasn’t the first black quarterback in the NFL, but he set an example that made it enormously easier for others to follow in his footsteps. There are now several African-Americans starring at quarterback in the NFL; sufficient evidence, in the eyes of some, to say “See? Racism doesn’t exist!” Ignoring decades of history, they will tell you with a straight face that the competitive pressures of running a professional sports franchise make it impossible to be racist, since any non-racist organization will be able to scoop up all the undervalued players. (Somehow that sounds familiar.) This from the same folks who, not too long ago, argued that “the White community” was entitled to disenfranchise blacks because Whites were “the advanced race.”

Today, Warren Moon is being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, becoming the first player ever to be in both the CFL and NFL Halls — oh yes, and the first black quarterback to be inducted. Congratulations, Warren; thanks to the example you set, you won’t be alone for long.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Sports
  • alienmist

    I can’t help but think “mott” is typing away, he always seemed to like this kind of topics.

    I do think somehow, humanity will never reach that point. if only we could!!

  • Arun Madhav

    Very inspiring.

  • http://tshirts.yellowibis.com Sara

    Sean, very much along the same lines, have you seen this new book?
    Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete

    There was also a great review/overview in the NYT here:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/23/books/review/23goldstein.html?ex=1154491200&en=4bb494d5eaac478c&ei=5070

  • Chris

    Sean,

    I would just point out that the point of Steve Chapman’s article you cited doesn’t appear to be as simplistic (or inflammatory) as you suggest. Rather than claiming that racism doesn’t exist, Chapman seems to be suggesting that in addition to the unconscious (and conscious as well, to be sure) racism that remains in our society, there is another, more subtle problem. This is the refusal of some to acknowledge when progress is being made, even if it does not represent a full solution to the problem.

    Without such acknowledgement, one could argue that an atmosphere will develop in which battles against discrimination are not viewed as ones that can be won. Instead, as is not altogether uncommon today, folks will default to a mentality in which they point out all the problems due to racism, sexism, etc. in society without thinking constructively about solutions.

    Of course, alternatively, if one only focuses on the progress being made, people may begin to take for granted the improvement in the social condition, maybe resulting in a reversal of progress. All of this is simply the statement that discrimination is a very difficult problem to deal with, especially in a society in which much of it has ben institutionalized! I may have gotten of topic, but I think the point (or at least A point) that Chapman makes that is particularly good is that there are a lot of people today who strive to find places in which they can lament the poor state of social equity without at least thinking about the progress that has been made and the progress that can be made.

  • jb

    Dude, what’s up with the dashes in “f—- n—“? How positively Victorian.

    If you care to explain when & why you use them, I’d love to hear it.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Sara, I hadn’t seen that book, thanks for the tip.

    Chris, Chapman’s article argues that “sentiment” — which is an interesting category under which to include “racism,” when you think about it — “doesn’t count for much in the NFL,” and therefore that the media should quit whining about the unfair treatment of black quarterbacks. As if racism, which was perfectly obvious as little as ten or twenty years ago, had suddenly vanished to be replaced by a color-blind devotion to winning. And as if this vanishing were not due to the sacrifices and perseverance of people like Moon, but simply to the genius of the free market. Which seems awfully simplistic and inflammatory to me. I have never noticed any refusal to acknowledge when progress is being made, nor does it sound like a problem I’d be writing columns about if my magazine had stubbornly been denying the existence of any problem against which it was necessary to make progress in the first place.

    jb, I use them when they were in the original article from which I cut and pasted the quote, and to which I linked. Nothing more delicate than that.

  • Chris

    Sean,

    touche. I wasn’t following the angle whereby Chapman dismissed the modern success of black quarterbacks as a consequence of the free market. I agree that this is a very wrong and pernicious message to convey if he did it intentionally. I mainly aimed to address the statement summarized in his concluding paragraph, which seems a more innocent point, although it now seems to be not the whole story.

    p.s. — i’m dying to cut chapman some slack since he writes for my favorite newspaper and baseball team owning organization. So maybe it isn’t completely fair to associate him so closely with Nat’l Review. After all, he did come to Chicago from the New Republic, and writes for Slate as well, so he may not be totally without values :)

  • John Branch

    Wow–I didn’t know any of this about Warren Moon’s background. Sad to say, there are bound to be other stories similar to his. Probably among the coaches of professional sports, for one.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Wait a minute, Chris — you left a comment on my post, and I responded, and you agreed that my response had a good point? This can’t be the internet! In return I will cut Chapman some slack as a good Cubs fan.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Well, Warren Moon’s struggles may have been aided by someone who had no moral qualms about racism, but thought – hey, maybe I can make some money here. The free market has no agency – it doesn’t “do” anything – it is a means of incentives and disincentives. People do things, e.g., like Warren Moon.

    The interesting question is – are racial barriers or gender barriers broken down faster with or without the free market?

  • http://chivononpo.blogspot.com Joao Carlos

    I still remember the first ever Superbowl trasnmited to Brazil; 1988, that was. Resdkins, led by Doug Williams, beat unmercifully the Elway’s Broncos…

  • Pingback: Yummy Yummy » Nice little history of Warren Moon, the NFL's first prominent black quarterback, on the occasion of his induction into the NFL Hall of Fame()

  • http://www.2by4.org/ nibaq

    Thanks for the great post. I was never a fan of Moon, but thats cause I caught him at the end of his career with the Seahawks, but now I have new found respect for the man.

  • Neil

    Thank you Sean!

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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