Sports Pulse: The NFL is turning 100. We look back at the legacy of Doug Williams. The first black quarterback to win a national championship.
Editor’s note: During Black History Month, with the series 28 Black Stories in 28 days, USA TODAY Sports examines the issues, challenges and opportunities Black athletes and sports officials face after the nation’s reckoning on race in 2020.
Doug Williams, the first Black quarterback to ever play in a Super Bowl, and one of just a handful of Black team executives, is asked why the NFL still has a difficult time hiring Black head coaches. His answer is blunt, truthful and important to hear.
The Texans’ David Culley was the lone Black coach hired this cycle while one of the most qualified of the coaching candidates, Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who is in his second straight Super Bowl, wasn’t.
“The answer is, you can almost directly draw a line through what happened on Jan. 6 (when extremists attacked the Capitol), through the Black Lives Matter movement, to the lack of Black coaches,” Williams told USA TODAY Sports. “Who made the decision to let people riot at the Capitol when they could have been stopped? Why was Black Lives Matter declared violent when it clearly wasn’t? Who made the decisions not to hire (more than one) Black head coach? There’s a central theme to all of that.
“What I mean is, systemic racism impacts every aspect of society. Systemic racism is why white rioters could do what they did without getting killed by police. Racism is why some people portray Black Lives Matter as violent when they’re not. Racism also figures into the thinking of some owners when they’re hiring head coaches. Racism is a part of all aspects of American life.”
Doug Williams winning the Super Bowl with the Redskins was a big moment for USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones. (Photo: Elise Amendola, AP)
“The problem isn’t the leadership of the league,” Williams said. “I think (Commissioner) Roger Goodell and (Executive Vice President of Football Operations) Troy Vincent try their best. But their hands are tied. This is on the owners. There are some that apparently still have a difficult time getting past the skin color of a candidate. They are 32 entities and not all of them have open minds.”
As we enter Super Bowl 55 week, two stories about race and football again intersect: Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes is one of the few Black Super Bowl quarterbacks in history; and the other story is Bieniemy, one of the smartest minds in the game, again shut out of the head coach hiring cycle.
Williams is perfect to discuss both of these topics. He made history in Super Bowl 22 playing for Washington against the Denver Broncos. Following his playing career Williams started coaching, and then became a front office executive. He’s now the senior vice president of player development in Washington.
In the NFL, Williams is royalty. What he says matters. Many of you will agree, some of you won’t, but the accuracy of his words is undeniable.
Williams was also asked if we’ve finally reached the point where we don’t need to talk about quarterbacks being Black in the Super Bowl. Before the question is even finished, Williams politely rejects the premise.
“We’re always going to talk about race and Black quarterbacks,” Williams said, “because this is America, and race always matters in America.”
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After Williams, teams eventually, if not slowly, opened their minds more about Black players as quarterbacks. He opened the door for Super Bowl throwers such as Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair and now Mahomes twice.
Jimmie Giles, who played with Williams when both were in Tampa Bay, and was inducted into the 2021 class of the Black College Football Hall of Fame, said in a recent interview that Black quarterbacks “owe a debt of gratitude to Doug because he changed the way … and the nation, as a matter of fact … saw black quarterbacks in this league.”
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t” think about his playing in the Super Bowl, Williams said in 2018. “Not for what it meant to Doug Williams but because it was about much more than Doug Williams. It meant a lot to a whole lot of other people. All the political angles, what people would say depending on what I did, I knew all of that going into the game. But I tried not to put myself above the team and make it all about Doug Williams.
“I realized that no matter what happened, I was going to be a part of Black history. For me, the best way to be talked about in Black history was for the team to win the game. I didn’t want to be a part of Black history and get my (expletive) kicked. That’s why I always remembered the fact that the Redskins didn’t bring me to San Diego just to show off their Black quarterback. I went to San Diego as the Redskins’ starting quarterback. And I went there to win.”
Williams said the reason more Black quarterbacks are in the league now, and thus have more opportunities to play in the Super Bowl, is because the mentality of teams changed. Frankly, ownership and front offices became less racist once they saw that Black quarterbacks could help them win.
“The mentality and beliefs about Black quarterbacks changed, somewhat, once Black quarterbacks started winning,” Williams said. “But we had to overcome a lot. We had to overcome all of the stereotypes that didn’t impact white quarterbacks.”
Williams did that and inspired others to do the same.