Reflecting Changes: Race and Sexuality in the NFL today


West Virginia Mountaineers quarterback Geno Smith has received subjective criticism from the media that could impact his livelihood. Is it warranted or just another bashing of a black quarterback? Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

By P.J. Root

Special to

There are topics that are inherently difficult to broach in our society and in sports – namely the NFL – even as the world becomes more tolerant.

However, two major topics continue to raise their heads – the stigmas of both black quarterbacks and homosexuality in the game of football.

An overwhelming abundance of criticism directed toward black quarterbacks, in addition to the evolving culture change have polarized the league on multiples levels.

Each expanding discussion has turned ugly , oftentimes underhanded, or in some cases blatant concerning both topics in either approval of stereotypes or prejudice of sexual preference.

Rush Limbaugh

Lighting-rod radio host, Rush Limbaugh, years ago dove into the unspoken ideal that African-Americans cannot grasp the quarterback position.

“I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern,” Limbaugh said on ESPN in 2003. “I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.”

The quarterback Limbaugh was singling out happened to be Donovan McNabb.

Was it based on McNabb’s merit as a mobile and efficient playmaker? Was it based on his Pro Bowls or consistent performances in the brutal NFC East?


It was based on the color of his skin.

McNabb would eventually lead the Philadelphia Eagles to the NFC Championship that very year, and eventually the Super Bowl, yet these words cheapening McNabb’s achievements have lingered.

Cam Newton.

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

These evaluations have become combative concerning attitude with black quarterbacks, especially by Nolan Nawrocki of Pro Football Weekly.

“Very disingenuous — has a fake smile,” Nawrocki wrote. “Comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup.”

There has been a sophomore slump,  but Cam Newton has ignited a franchise by having the ability to create yards through a haymaker arm and punishing feet. None which was mentioned by Nawrocki for the future NFL and Offensive Rookie of the Year.

When speaking of West Virginia’s first round draft prospect Geno Smith, Nawrocki continues down the same path of assessment.

“Nonchalant field presence,” Nawrocki wrote.  “Does not command respect from teammates and cannot inspire.”

Pretty bleak there – almost brutal.

Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel further expressed viewpoints from unnamed scouts that Redskins QB Griffin  had a “selfish streak,” and questioned the Baylor star’s interpersonal skills.

Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Was Griffin selfish when hobbling against the Seahawks in the dead marshes of FedEx Field? Battling through constant stabbing pain, Griffin ignored his own security up until his knee finally buckled in his final game of last season. The image of Griffin grasping his lineman’s hand and screaming in pain, fulfilled every cliché about leaving every ounce of one’s self on the field.

Not to mention he was Rookie of the Year.

White quarterbacks, in comparison, have received far less scrutiny in a majority of cases. Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears, for starters, is not the warmest or best postured of field generals in the league.

Just ask the Chicago offensive line if Cutler exudes selfish, aloof or communication deficiencies. Better yet, ask future Hall of Famer John Lynch. ESPN columnist Rick Reilly wrote that Lynch was forced to hurl Cutler’s phone jut to receive the basic pleasantry of Cutler’s eye contact.

Even Brett Favre in his rowdy early days never encountered the microscopic lens applied to his black counterparts. Stories of late nights, and hung-over mornings are legend around the city of Green Bay, yet stories, if they were written were buried in the hinterlands of newspapers, barely reaching the light of day.

Jay Cutler is known for being aloof.

Raymond T. Rivard photograph

Cutler and Favre may have been scrutinized for their actions, but those criticisms came long after the draft, instead of during the period of time where every action could and does bring calamitous consequences for future income.

Sometimes skill and personality is not even considered when critiquing a minority QB. Take former ESPN commentator Rod Parker, and his comments about Redskins QB Robert Griffin III.

“Is he a (black) brother, or is he a cornball brother,” Parker said on ESPN First Take. “He’s not one of us.”

The sound byte originated around Griffin’s fiancé, (who happens to be white) which was evidence enough for Parker that Griffin did not fulfill the unwritten requirements of being an African American.

Parker is black.

The level of criticism and constant barrage of commentary creates mirroring parallels to the struggle of a gay teammate in football. Instead of pundits screaming from soapboxes, the passive-aggressive attitude of silent slights and clamped mouths have been just as loud as any publicized denouncement.

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

The collective mindset of NFL locker rooms can be seen between the lines in commonly abbreviated answers meant to settle the minds of future investments or advocacy groups. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski illuminates the majority in his recent interview with ESPN.

“Everyone has their own ways to live their life,” Gronkowski said. “…as long as he’s respecting me, keeping distance … I’ll respect him back.”

When referring to distance, what is Gronkowski alluding to? Personal distance? Sexual distance? Emotional distance?  Does the distance apply to QB Tom Brady?

No one is looking for Freudian discoveries from Gronkowski, but when keeping distance is applied to a team member in a sport which demands constant contact and participation, toleration is not enough (e.g. Terrell Owens).

Maybe Gronkowski wanted the distance that Notre Dame Linebacker Manti Te’o wanted when asked if he was gay.

“Faaaarrrrrrr from it.”

Two players known for doing the dirty work on their respective teams, linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo and punter Chris Kluwe, have advanced social awareness of acceptance and understanding of gay players. Both players going as far as becoming involved with overturning California’s Proposition 8, which prohibits same-sex marriage.

Yet, players who also participate in similar advocacy are not as passionate or willing to share their image with the homosexual community as are Ayanbadejo and Kluwe.

Ahmad Brooks of the 49ers and Isaac Sopoaga now of the Eagles appeared in a viral video for the “It Gets Better Project” combatting bullying. When asked about how important the message was for LGBT kids, Brooks and Sopoaga denounced their participation.

San Francisco 49ers nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

“I didn’t make any video,” Brooks said. “It was an anti-bullying video, not a gay video.”

Sopoaga simply said he was never there.

Well, Sopoaga and Brooks were there, and so was teammate Donte Whitner.

“The San Francisco 49ers are proud to join to let all LGBT teens know that it gets better,” Whitner says in the same video. “On behalf of the entire 49ers organization, we are on your side. And we promise: It gets better.”

The two stigmas attached to each subject create interesting conversations. On one hand African Americans are past the “Jackie Robinson” barrier, meaning that the acceptance in the league is real. Homosexuals have reached that barrier, but will the community have to encounter the same baseless criticisms the African American QBs are currently encountering?

Menander once wrote“Conscience is a God to all mortals.”

Here is to hoping the NFL and its’ affiliates believe.