Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Jefferson Street Joe: The creation of a modern myth

As part of their programming for Black History Month, ESPN ran “Third and a Mile” a look at the history of black quarterbacks in the NFL. (It is a tie-in with William C. Rhoden’s book of the same title.) I watched with interest because a portion of the program dealt with Steeler’s quarterback Joe Gilliam.

As expected for a network that should call itself ESPC, racism was the star of the show. It was the easy story: the big bad, prejudiced NFL keeping the poor black man down. In the Gilliam segment, the obsession with race resulted in a disjointed, scattershot narrative that sounded superficial and forced. Sportwriters talked about the racism he faced; teammates, family, and Gilliam himself talked about his personal demons and his struggles with drug addiction.

It is hard to fit Gilliam’s story into any pre-fab template. He was a gifted athlete who squandered those gifts and his opportunities. That is a tragedy but it is a more complex story than a simple fable of white racism and black suffering.

That has not stopped the sportswriters from trying. In “Third and a Mile” a pundit named Brad Pye said that “ “Joe was not strong enough to overcome racism.”

During the Limbaugh/McNabb controversy Lonnie White of the LA Times wrote:

The days when black quarterbacks didn't get opportunities to play because teams felt safer playing white quarterbacks, even if they were overrated, are over.

If today a black quarterback led his team to a 4-1-1 record, there's no way he would be replaced. Yet that's what happened in 1974, when [Joe] Gilliam started for the Pittsburgh Steelers but was benched in favor of Terry Bradshaw.

But that's the way it was back then, when black quarterbacks were judged more by their skin color than their performance on the field.
In the current Wikipedia we read:

He became the Steelers' starting Quarterback in 1974 but lost the job when Terry Bradshaw was chosen to lead the team after the first six games of the season, fueling speculation years later that Gilliam was removed because he was black.

The unforgiving facts tell a much different story. Neither Gilliam nor Bradshaw were good quarterbacks in 1974. Both were long on potential but short on performance. While it is true that Gilliam had a 4-1-1 record that year, Bradshaw was 5-2 and had led the Steelers into the playoffs in the previous two seasons.

It is hard to fault coach Chuck Noll for going with Bradshaw because he did choose a quarterback that went on to win four SuperBowls. Are we to believe that with Gilliam the Steelers would have won five or six?

That is what Rhoden and Co. want us to believe. If Gillaim was better than Bradshaw (four rings) then he was also better than Montana (four rings). Where is the evidence for this greatness? It cannot be found in his on-field performance in the NFL.

Rhoden and ESPN do a lot of stretching, blame-shifting, and gaze-averting to make the story about race. It makes “Third and a Mile” feel more like propaganda than honest history.

See also:
America’s Game

ESPN's Sports Nation: A republic of idiots and stoners

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