At some positions in the NFL, stereotypes reign

William C. Rhoden / New York Times News Service /

During a screening of a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen on Saturday, it finally occurred to me why the absence of white cornerbacks in the National Football League — or the presence of so many black ones — presents a compelling snapshot of the American condition.

Often, in reaction to an article about the lack of black quarterbacks or the lack of black coaches and executives, critics point out indignantly that there are no white cornerbacks, either. The disappearance of the white cornerback has more to do with shrunken aspirations, a lack of confidence and a reluctance to compete.

Cornerback at the NFL level is the most challenging position in sports.

It demands extraordinary speed and quickness. Like fighter pilots, cornerbacks must possess an unusual blend of physical strength and emotional toughness, the ability to think and act quickly under pressure.

The film, “Red Tails,” produced by George Lucas, is the gripping story of the Tuskegee Airmen, African-American pilots who fought in World War II. They were the first African-American aviators in the U.S. armed forces. The black fighter pilots were underestimated, marginalized, told they lacked the courage, the intelligence and the skill to be top-flight fighter pilots.

The movie depicts breathtaking dogfights over Italy and Germany where the Red Tails (so named because the Tuskegee pilots painted their planes’ tails bright red) performed heroic feats and earned commendations.

The movie is set in 1944. At the time, the armed forces were segregated. African-Americans were also excluded from major league sports in the United States. The modern NFL, for example, was not desegregated until 1946.

Practice of stacking

By the time Bernie Parrish, a white kid from Florida, and Walter Beach, an African-American from Michigan, joined the Cleveland Browns as cornerbacks in 1959 and 1960, the majority of cornerbacks were white. There were unwritten rules and practices designed to keep it that way.

“We were still in that era of the quotas,” said Parrish, referring to the unwritten practice of allowing a select number of African-Americans on a team. “In 1959, I believe the quota of black players was seven; then it went to 13.”

There was also the practice of stacking, making sure African-American players competed for the same positions.

“There would be six or eight guys competing for my spot and nobody competing for his,” Beach said, referring to Parrish, who has become one of his closest friends. “That’s where the stacking concept comes from. They would stack black cats behind each other; that was a reality. If you came to the Cleveland Browns and you wanted to play cornerback, there were going to be five brothers over there behind me.”

All 167 cornerbacks listed on active NFL rosters last Monday were African-American, although Julian Edelman, a receiver who is white, has played a few snaps at cornerback for the injury-plagued New England Patriots. The evolution to today’s rosters began with the emergence of the American Football League in 1960. While the NFL maintained quotas and engaged in steering and stacking, the rival AFL was snatching up talented players wherever it could find them, especially at historically black colleges.

“You had more black guys coming into the league who were receivers who could fly, and they had to have defensive backs who could fly with them,” Beach said.

At some point, white players stopped believing they could fly. No more protection from open competition; everyone had to prove himself on a level playing field. Like the success of black fighter pilots, the presence of 64 African-American starting cornerbacks in the NFL is an American triumph of meritocracy over protectionism.

The long-term negative effect of discriminatory practices of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s is reflected in the almost complete abandonment of cornerback by young white athletes aspiring to play the position at the most competitive high schools.

Dallas Jackson, who specializes in high school recruiting for Rivals.com, has seen the consequences.

“I’ve been at Rivals.com for seven years; there has not been a white cornerback who has stood out,” Jackson said. “I don’t think we have invited one to our U.S. Army All-American game.”

He added: “White athletes aren’t going out for the position or they are getting pushed out at an early age or getting steered clear of it in peewee ball. There are white cornerbacks out there; they just haven’t been recruited. They play the position and they might end up in Division II schools or Division III. But when we talk about the NFL level — I can’t remember a white cornerback in a long time. The white corner is a vanishing act right now.”

Getting moved

Ozzie Newsome, the Baltimore Ravens’ general manager, said the lack of white cornerbacks reflected a failure to see possibilities.

“I was a pretty good quarterback growing up, but when it came to organized football, I knew I should become a wide receiver, because from everything that I was reading, all the blacks were getting their positions changed,” said Newsome, who was a standout NFL tight end from 1978 to 1990.

Once he became a receiver, the road to the NFL became clearer. “Now you’ve got some heroes that you can look at; there is someone you can emulate who is black,” he said.

Young white athletes who might aspire to be NFL corners can’t see themselves in that role.

“They’re going through the same thing that I went through when I wanted to play quarterback,” Newsome said. “‘Yeah, you can play cornerback, but by the time you get to college, they’re going to move you to safety.’

“I think the stereotype can affect your mentality. If you grow up not seeing something and hearing something your whole life, that starts to impact you: ‘I can’t do this, I’m not good enough to do that.’ And that becomes a part of your life.”

Pushing to do more

A similar phenomenon is seen in the kicking game.

There are no African-American punters or kickers in the NFL. While white athletes shy away from cornerback because, in their minds, it requires too much athleticism, many African-American players eschew punting and kicking because it is not athletic enough.

Claude Mathis, the coach at DeSoto (Texas) High School, said he had to beg his best player to kick and punt. “Kids make fun of you when you’re a punter,” he said. “When you’re an athlete, you don’t want to be labeled as punter or kicker; kids will make fun of you.”

But they didn’t make fun of Bryson Echols: He is an all-America cornerback and an athlete at DeSoto, headed to the University of Texas.

“We’re not taught to punt and kick when we’re little; we’re taught to play other positions,” Mathis said of black athletes. “Look at the peewee league, look at the J.V. level, the junior high level, the elementary level, the professional level.”

Ted Ginn Sr., who coaches at Glenville High School in Cleveland, echoed Mathis’ sentiments. “Kids don’t see themselves as a punter because it’s always white punters in the NFL or college,” he said. “They see themselves as a wide receiver or running back, not as a field-goal kicker who can stay in the NFL for 15 years and make millions.”

In fact, kicking is a high-profile position at Solon (Ohio) High School. The last two kickers there, who are white, went on to outstanding college careers: Pat Jacob was a two-time all-Ivy League punter at Princeton, and Albert Benedict kicked for Division II Gannon in Pennsylvania.

The lack of white corners and black kickers is less about sports and more about having dreams, seeing possibility and having the courage to explore one’s discomfort zone.

“I get upset with our guys when they let others not let them dream,” said Jim McQuaide, Solon’s coach. “Limiting themselves because of what others think they can or can’t do. Anyone can be a cornerback in the NFL, anyone can be a punter. That’s our mission as coaches; we have to push our players to do more.”

White corners, black kickers. Both groups can learn lessons from the Tuskegee Airmen, the legendary Red Tails, who kicked and scratched in pursuit of a dream.

In the end, they showed the world they could indeed fly.