Racism Dead? Nah, Just Wait For The Bleep

By Mike Freeman (Off the BlackAthlete Sports Wire)
Updated: October 7, 2004

Byron Leftwich

Byron Leftwich

JACKSONVILLE, FLA.—The Cro-Magnon fan on Line 1 was deadly serious. He had called in to one of the Jacksonville radio talk shows here and complained that James Harris, the black general manager of the Jaguars and former pioneering NFL quarterback, had kept too many black throwers on the roster. The Jaguars are believed to be the first team in league history to have all of its quarterback positions filled by blacks.

Harris was doing it, the man said, because he was attempting to atone for all of the discrimination Harris himself faced as a professional quarterback during his playing career.

Three white quarterbacks on the roster? No problem.

Three black men? It’s a conspiracy. It’s a plot to keep the white man down. It’s the Manchurian Quarterback.


One of those affirmative action throwers, Byron Leftwich, has faced some racial ugliness since becoming the starter. I receive several anonymous racially-charged phone messages a month from a handful of fans and readers who believe they can get a discount by knocking two blacks with one call: they first blast me with racist language, then move on to Leftwich.

One caller referred to Leftwich as a “dumb —-” before hanging up. Called me the same. E-mailers and callers have used code words when speaking of Leftwich — “stupid” and “idiot” and “slow.” Anyone who has spent 30 seconds with Leftwich knows how bright he is, but no matter to some.

One teammate claimed that Leftwich has received several hate-filled letters, something that was disputed by a person close to the quarterback. Leftwich declined to comment and my guess is he would never make a public issue out of any of this because he believes in simply staying focused on quarterbacking the team.

The people who do these things are in the minority. We know this. I also know that I hear from many fans that support Leftwich (and there are also Leftwich backers on the fan boards). Maybe it is only a few jerks feeling creative with their computer skills and speed dial.

But the point is not so much how many weirdos are doing this, but why, in this 21st Century, when privately funded rocket ships blast into space, and we think our society has progressed so much, is there even one such e-mail or obnoxious posting on the message boards?

I don’t live in Pleasantville. It is just that maybe we have not progressed as far as we think. Mainly because many black quarterbacks, both now and over the years, from Doug Williams to Donovan McNabb to Daunte Culpepper to Steve McNair, have faced the problem of dealing with racist fans. The attacks may have subsided some, but they are still there, in some ugly form. They won’t go away.

Harris played for three NFL teams from 1969 to 1981 and faced massive discrimination both from the NFL and fans. He has since counseled a number of black throwers, including Leftwich and Culpepper, about the unique challenges a black quarterback faces. His main message to them?

“Just focus on your job,” he said. “Focus on being a quarterback and don’t let the other things distract you.”

Black throwers have spoken of the death threats and racist mail for some time. Former Tampa Bay quarterback Doug Williams received death threats after each loss and says he could fill a book with the racist correspondence he got as well. Once, he received a rotten watermelon in the mail with an accompanying racist note.

In 1988, two days before Syracuse was to play Auburn in the Sugar Bowl, quarterback Don McPherson was sleeping in his hotel room when the phone rang. According to the Los Angeles Times, McPherson said the caller stated, “During the game, —-, you are going to die.”

Former quarterback Warren Moon said he received death threats while a player with the Houston Oilers. But what troubled him the most was an incident that occurred after one game. As Moon sat at his locker, his son reportedly approached him with tears streaming down his face.

“I thought he was upset we lost the game,” Moon said. “But the thing he was most upset about was the names I was being called in the stands.”

Two seasons ago, prior to the AFC Championship game, Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair received hate mail sent via overnight delivery; the mail was reportedly from a Titans fan. McNair said he would not allow any such incident to ever distract him.

Last year, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper received several racially charged letters a month during the season. Several were so disturbing that they were forwarded to the NFL’s security office.

Mike Tice, the Minnesota coach, told the Saint Paul Pioneer Press that Culpepper’s race “is an issue, and I’m disappointed that it’s an issue. It’s a shame that that has to come into play, when you have a young man of Daunte’s character.”

Jon Entine, who is white, and author of the book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It, told the newspaper: “Anyone who says we see athletes as just athletes is very naive. I don’t think we’ll ever grow past this. I just never heard anyone say, ‘Cade McNown is a bad white quarterback.’ But they somehow always attack the blackness of an African-American quarterback who is struggling in the same way.”

This past spring, when Leftwich was named the grand marshal of the Pepsi 400, a caller left a message on my voice mail that went like this: “Now you people want to take over NASCAR.” Other unpleasantries followed.

At first, it sounded like a threat, and I considered calling the Jaguars, then I realized it was just a racist blowhard.

Harris is right. The quarterbacks need to ignore these spikes of fan racism and focus on their jobs.

I just wonder if the ugliness will ever completely go away.