A Conspiracy in Every Backfield

A group calling itself the National Black Players Coalition (NBPC) organized a demonstration to denounce the National Football League as a racist confederation. Let's just say it fell short of the Million Man March—by about a million.

According to a media advisory trumpeting the event, protesters would parade from Howard University to the L Street headquarters of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Once there, NBPC officials would formally petition the government to end racial discrimination in the NFL and force the league to hire "at least one Black Quarterback...by the year 2000!"

NBPC co-founder and spokesman Fred Outten said he timed the march to coincide with the anniversary of Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her bus seat, adding that he sees parallels between his crusade and the one Parks is renowned for.

"White quarterbacks are now taking the seats of more deserving black quarterbacks," he said.

To put it mildly, Outten, a 51-year-old full-time Howard student and self-professed football fanatic, hasn't had much luck getting people on the NBPC bus. Not even the National Park Service could underestimate the size of the crowd that congregated on the Howard lawn to participate in the group's anti-NFL march: Nobody showed up. Nobody.

Outten had drawn up a banner for marchers to carry—"Bring home the black quarterbacks from Canada," it demanded, referring to the Canadian Football League's reputation as an underground railroad for all the black college QBs dodged by the NFL draft—but he ended up driving it downtown to EEOC's office instead, along with two fellow Howard students, and they took turns holding up the placard long enough to have their pictures taken with it. A man Outten identified as NBPC's other co-founder, Gary Mock, arrived at EEOC headquarters just as the banner was unfurled, but Mock never got out of his minivan, muttering, "I wouldn't have bothered showing up if I'd known nobody else was here," as he drove away.

"Oh, it's this weather," Outten huffed when asked why his parade had flopped. "I guess everybody thought it was postponed."

Maybe the wintry mix that fell throughout the morning of the demonstration does explain why Outten rode rather than marched to EEOC. But NBPC's cause might well have something to do with the apathy that reigned o'er his parade.

Historically speaking, the NFL's partiality for white boys is irrefutable. D.C.'s beloved Redskins, remember, refused to integrate until the Justice Department forced the team to trade for Bobby Mitchell. And in front offices, the bias still holds.

But Outten isn't griping about wrongs in upper management. His concerns are on the playing field. And by now, that's a tough point to prove.

Whether Outten wants to admit it, talent has vanquished racism on the gridiron to such a degree that a non-sports fan or a good lawyer could make a much better case that it's whitey who's being shut out of the NFL. ESPN got a lot of attention this season for its feature on the league's lone white receiver and lone white cornerback. And closer to home, they sure ain't the RedsKKKins anymore: Rookie linebacker Derek Smith, brought in via the most recent draft, was the team's first white defensive starter in years.

But Outten still doesn't like what he sees lining up behind center. And in addition to crying racism, he names names, both of players he views as victims of the league's anti-black bent and of the white beneficiaries. A lot of names. It gets confusing very quickly.

Marvin Graves wasn't taken in the NFL draft only because he's black, Outten rails; Wally Richardson was taken in the NFL draft only because he's black. "He's just window dressing brought in because Baltimore is a majority-black city," he says. "They won't pay him or play him."

The Oilers kept Steve McNair on the bench too long because he's black. The Lions made Andre Ware a starter too soon because he's black. "Andre Ware was set up to fail," Outten says. "You see that all the time with black quarterbacks."

The big winners in the racial preference sweepstakes, says Outten, include Doug Flutie, Jeff George, and poor little rich white boy Heath Shuler.

Outten needs to name names, of course, because by now all the numbers work against NBPC's argument: EEOC investigators aren't likely to get worked up about the fact that only 20 percent of the NFL's starting QBs are black, not when the government's own census says that about 12 percent of the population of the U.S. is black.

But along with the numerical shortfalls, NBPC's anecdotal evidence is also far too flawed for anyone to take its one-black-quarterback-per-team demand seriously.

Outten, for example, says Charlie Ward's experience shows just how racist the NFL is. And with a little tweaking, Ward's case indeed seems damning: Ward led Florida State to the national championship in 1994 and then became the first Heisman Trophy-winning senior not drafted by the NFL.

Outten knows Ward's entire résumé, but he prefers to hide all the parts that reveal what a lousy victim Ward really makes. Every pro scout Ward talked to prior to the 1994 draft told him he'd be no better than a fourth- or fifth-round pick, yet he sent pre-draft missives to all NFL teams requesting that they draft him in the first round or not at all. If not a top pick, he said, he'd hang up his cleats and take his versatile gifts to the NBA—he was a point guard for the Seminoles' basketball team, too. Upon receiving the ransom note, NFL GMs, en masse, wished Ward luck, and soon enough he was making millions on the Madison Square Garden hardwood with the Knicks.

Outten also doesn't bring up University of Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel. Probably because Ward's tale, well, pales next to Wuerffel's. Or because Wuerffel is white. Wuerffel had a better college record than Ward—he too won the national championship and the Heisman, but he also led his team to an undefeated season (Ward lost to Notre Dame) and threw for more yards and touchdowns—yet nobody but the Wuerffel family cried when he was all but ignored during the 1996 NFL draft.

In Outten's eyes, even the black QBs who make it to the NFL are victims. Take Kordell Stewart. Rather than revel in young Stewart's ascendance, as most of America seems to be doing, Outten points to the AFC Championship game as proof of the unwinnable situation black quarterbacks are in. Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher, Outten alleges with depressing sincerity, "sabotaged" the Steelers' Super Bowl berth rather than let his black quarterback shine. Forget that Stewart threw three interceptions (two in the end zone) and fumbled deep in Denver territory in a game the Steelers lost by just three points. Outten asserts that the media, complicit in the NFL's racist conspiracy, made an undeserving scapegoat of the quarterback. Because he's black.

"What about that chip-shot 38-yard field goal that Pittsburgh's white kicker missed?" Outten says. "Why doesn't anybody blame the white kicker? Why?"

Let me guess, Fred. Umm. Just give me a minute. Oh! I think I know the answer...—Dave McKenna

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