Cam Newton is black.
Normally, these days, one wouldn’t make that distinction about the Carolina Panthers’ quarterback. But he brought up the issue himself recently, questioning whether football fans are ready: “I’m an African-American quarterback. That may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to.”
Of course, he’s not the first. Charles Follis became the first black professional football player in 1904. Fritz Pollard in the 1920s played on the league’s first championship team and then served as the league’s first black coach. Willie Thrower became the league’s first black quarterback with the Chicago Bears in 1953. And, of course, Doug Williams, of Grambling fame, became the Super Bowl XXII MVP in 1988 with the Washington Redskins.
But Newton has a point. As much as we want to believe that race no longer matters in American life or in our national pastime, surely it still does.
I think of a conversation I had with John Wooten, an African-American contemporary of Bill Nunn Jr., who served as the Dallas Cowboys’ director of pro scouting for 17 years. He continues to work for greater integration of the league, particularly among the front office, coaching and scouting ranks.
“Do we have mountains to climb?” Wooten said. “Yes. But we’re so far from where we were. When I came into this league in 1959, there wasn’t a black coach anywhere. The only blacks you saw, other than the few players, were those that were sweeping up the floor, doing the laundry. That’s what you saw. Now you look out across the field and not only do you see the players, but you see the coaches on the sideline, you see the game day officials.”
And on Super Bowl Sunday, you will see the Carolina Panthers’ quarterback.