Can Cam Newton change the game for black quarterbacks?

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When Doug Williams led the Washington Redskins to victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII, I remember hearing Redskins radio commentator and Hall of Fame linebacker Sam Huff say that it was his hope that the stereotype of the black athlete not having the mental capacity to play quarterback in the NFL had finally come to an end.

But even with Williams’s triumphant moment, Warren Moon’s Hall of Fame career and the success of signal callers like Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair and more recently Michael Vick, you still hear in 2011 the same old song when it comes to African-American quarterbacks: “He’s a great athlete, but he doesn’t possess the IQ or leadership skills to be an NFL quarterback.”

It’s been something I’ve heard every time a highly touted black quarterback comes out of college to enter the NFL Draft. Even at a time when a black man is the president of the United States, that old wives’ tale about an African-American quarterback’s lack of mental prowess to be an NFL quarterback always rears its ugly head.

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Recently, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock continued that long-standing tradition of questioning the mental intellect of a black signal caller. While other analysts were gushing over the physical tools of former Auburn star and Heisman Trophy quarterback Cam Newton during one of his recent workouts, Mayock basically blew off Newton’s performance:

Can he adapt to, can he process and assimilate a very structured and complex pro offense against a complex pro defense? And secondly, and most importantly, when you get to a certain skill level in the NFL, which this kid certainly has, at the quarterback position what kind of kid is he? Is he going to be the first guy in the building? Is he a gym rat? Is he football smart? Is he a leader of men?

In all the years I’ve covered and watched pro football, I’ve never heard anyone question the football IQ or the leadership of white quarterbacks entering the NFL draft. They may question their accuracy, mobility or even their arm strength. Leadership and football smarts are rarely questions for white quarterbacks.

“There’s still a terminology that’s used only when talking about Black quarterbacks that’s almost never used when talking about all the other quarterbacks out there,” said AOL Fanhouse columnist David Steele. “But the way (black quarterbacks) are evaluated and critiqued by these scouts, general managers and these TV analysts hasn’t changed one bit. You hearing the exact same thing in 2011 that you heard in 1961, 1971 and 1981.”

Steele thought Mayock’s assessment of Newton’s ability was not only the same old racist spiel, but downright lazy reporting for someone who is supposed to be a highly-touted analyst of pro football.

“To get out there and say ‘I have questions about his football IQ, you owe everybody something better than that,” Steele said. “It’s lazy and it’s not thinking and it’s beneath what the job demands of you and it’s insulting to the player. (Newton) was the best player in college football last year. How dumb can he be?”Amid the tumultuous stress of an NCAA investigation in which his father Cecil was excused of offering his son’s services to Mississippi State for a little over $180,000, Cam Newton never lost his focus on the field late in the season despite all the distractions. He brought his team back from a 24-0 deficit against arch-rival Alabama and then led Auburn to a win in the Southeastern Conference Championship game over South Carolina.

Doesn’t that make him mentally tough?

In the days leading up to the combines, Newton told Sports Illustrated NFL writer Peter King that he wanted to be an “icon and an entertainer.” And of course, he was criticized for having a bad attitude. Really? Self-confidence and some swagger constitute a bad attitude? Wouldn’t you want to have that kind of supreme confidence when the game is on the line?

In Philadelphia, fans and media pundits criticized Donovan McNabb mercilessly for not having that “swag.”

“We know Cam Newton is a first-round player and already they’re saying he has a bad attitude,” said Lloyd Vance, author of the book, Third and a Mile, which chronicles the history of the black quarterback. “When he said he wants to be an entertainer and icon, they really blew that out of proportion. He’s a young man. He wants to come into the NFL, he wants to be a star and he wants to shine. He’s a Heisman Trophy winner. He has excelled on every level — he’s won at junior, he won in high school and he won the national championship last year, so why not come in here with some swagger.”

Vance said another example of bias towards black quarterbacks coming into the NFL is that they are often told to convert to a new position because of their athleticism.

According to a study that Vance conducted in 2008, he said that 33 black quarterbacks that were drafted dating from the 1930s to 2008 were converted to other positions. It amounts to about a third of the African-American signal callers drafted. Vance also found that of the 617 white quarterbacks drafted during the same time period only 10 were asked to change positions.

Vance said he saw current Minnesota Vikings quarterback Joe Webb playing wide receiver at the Senior Bowl instead of quarterback like he did during his collegiate at Alabama-Birmingham.

“Joe Webb was at the Senior Bowl with (now Broncos quarterback) Tim Tebow, ” Vance said. “Everybody kept saying you gotta give Tim Tebow his shot, but nobody was saying that about Joe Webb. At first, [the Vikings] were going to blindly convert him into a wide receiver because they had that ‘we have to get him on the field mentality because he’s a great athlete. Why not let him develop into the quarterback he’s going to be?”

I get the feeling that when it’s Terrell Pryor turn to declare himself eligible for next year’s draft you’re going to hear the same old song once more. As we move closer to this year’s draft, you’re going to hear pundits do everything they can devalue the talent of Newton or Virginia Tech’s Tyrod Taylor by questioning their mental prowess, their leadership or their character.

Like in every other aspect of black life in America, African-American quarterbacks have to realize that when they come into the NFL the scrutiny on them is far more intensified than it is on their white counterparts because there’s still a belief among scouts, the media and some coaches that they don’t have mental capacity or the work ethic to succeed in the NFL.

The bottom line is that African-American quarterbacks are always on double-secret probation in the NFL. There is no margin for error for on or off the field screw-ups. Even acts of self-confidence and youthful exuberance like Newton wanting to be some sort of iconic figure are frowned upon because its seen as arrogant when comes out of the mouth of a young black quarterback.

When Newton, Taylor and eventually Pryor come into the league, they better know that playbook better than the offensive coordinator or their quarterback coach. They better be the first to arrive and the last to leave their team’s practice facility.

It goes back to that time-honored adage you often hear in many African-American homes: you have to twice as good as your white counterparts. It’s no different in pro football.