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In the Back of the Bus
Jack Olsen
July 22, 1968
The world of professional sport has offered great opportunity to the Negro in recent years, but it has not offered him equality. He still gets less for doing more on behalf of a white athletic establishment that appreciates him most when he knows his place
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July 22, 1968

In The Back Of The Bus

The world of professional sport has offered great opportunity to the Negro in recent years, but it has not offered him equality. He still gets less for doing more on behalf of a white athletic establishment that appreciates him most when he knows his place

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In his native Long Beach, Calif., Gene Washington was not only a prep passing star but student-body president of an integrated school. He played quarterback on the freshman team at Stanford, and in his sophomore year he beat out veteran Dave Lewis for the starting quarterback's job. But in his junior year, 1967, Washington suddenly emerged as a flankerback. The impression on the campus was that another player had beaten him out, but the truth was that Washington had initiated the change himself. "It was strictly a matter of economics," he says. "I knew a black quarterback would have little chance in pro ball unless he was absolutely superb. What usually happens is that the pro team tells you there's no place for you at quarterback, but they can use you as a defensive back or a flanker. And then they tell you they can't give you as much money because you'd be learning a new position. So I decided to beat them to it. Now when I deal with the pros I will deal for the most money available to me at my position."

Says Sam Skinner, an outspoken San Francisco Negro journalist, "The pro teams don't recognize the black man's mind. They recognize our bodies for beautiful strength, and that's the end of it. The pros will tell you they don't discriminate, but they do. They get these Negro quarterbacks who can do anything—play flanker, defensive back, halfback, everything—so they avoid using them as quarterbacks. I've always said that if we can find a Negro quarterback who runs the 100 in 10.5, misses tackles and falls down when he goes out for a pass, we may have our first pro quarterback."

Rigid patternization of black athletes occurs throughout pro football. Everyone knows that there are no Negro quarterbacks, but nobody stops to think about other positions. On one typical weekend last season in the NFL, no Negro center started a game. Of the 32 offensive guards in the starting lineups of NFL teams, 29 were white. That tight little interior cluster of men, which is comprised of the center, two offensive guards and a quarterback, was as lily-white as the Alabama state police. "It's not very complicated to figure out," says a white NFL player. "The play starts right in that cluster. The center has to get the ball off on exactly the right count and then cover his man. The two offensive guards have to know how to stand fast and block to one side or the other, and they have to know how to pull the hell out of there and lead the play around an end, and they have to know how to head fake and shoulder fake and everything else, because the other team is watching them and the center to try to figure out where the play's going. Those three guys and the quarterback are it. It doesn't make a damn what the other seven players do; if anybody in that tight little cluster screws up, that's it. The play is dead. Now, how can white coaches, with all their built-in prejudices about the Negro, assign positions like that to black men?"

The situation at linebacker is similar. On that same typical weekend of last season 48 linebackers lumbered out on the field to start NFL games. Forty-five of them, or 94% were white. "It's the same thing there," says the NFL player. "Most defensive football players have a single job to do, with little variation, but the linebacker has to exercise judgment. He may wind up tackling the quarterback 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, or he may wind up knocking down a pass 20 yards up the field. He has to be able to read plays—well, everybody knows all the things the linebacker has to do. It's one of the most responsible defensive positions. Therefore, he can't be a Negro. The few exceptions are guys like Dave Robinson of Green Bay. Robinson is so good that even the coach would not have the guts to play him someplace else. In other words, a few Negroes can break through these white preconceptions, but only if they're superplayers, and Dave Robinson is."

The perfect position for the black athlete in pro football, as seen through the white establishment's lenses, is cornerback. The position requires speed, a commodity that most Negroes bring to the game. And it requires very little of that quality which the white man likes to think belongs exclusively to him: judgment. "Cornerback is not a brains position," says Bill Koman, retired St. Louis Cardinal linebacker. "You pick up the split end or the flanker and you stay with him all the way. That's it. There's very little judgment required."

On that sample weekend last year in the NFL, the cornerback areas resembled the middle of a cotton field in Crumrod, Ark. Three-fourths of the starting cornerbacks, 24 out of 32, were black. In fact, the ratio of black to white cornerbacks was almost exactly the reverse of the ratio of black to white players in the league.

"Yassuh, white man, boss," says one derisive NFL cornerback. "We ain't got the brains to play center, 'cause we can't count, but we can follow that flanker's ass all the way down the field, yuck, yuck."

The average young Negro player tries in high school to program himself into the glamorous offensive positions, and it is from the ranks of these star backs that pro cornerbacks arc made later. There are few pro teams that care to start three Negro offensive backs. The customary maximum is two. Though they deny it, of course, color becomes a factor when teams assess their player needs at draft and trade time. A team with a black fullback and flanker will take a very good black running back but would still prefer a white one, and will draft accordingly. Talent remains the biggest criterion, but color matters.

As a result, more and more high school and college football players are taking the Gene Washington route: changing their positions to fit the white man's mold. If the white man thinks you should be a cornerback, start off as one.

Those who insist on playing certain positions often have problems when they go up to the pros. "You find yourself getting switched and doing everything backward," says Bobby Mitchell, Washington Redskin flanker back who was an All-Big Ten halfback at the University of Illinois. "Then you start getting extra coaching and you tense up, because now you're thinking about every step. The next thing you know you're fouling up all over, and then—bang!—you're cut. But I've seen white football players who were switched from their college positions and started messing up, and they were sent back to their old positions to regain their confidence."

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