The National Football League does an excellent job of publicly attacking some issues and problems. Unfortunately, the league disguises one of its most embarrassing issues within a veil of euphemistic lingo and "throwback" logic. This issue doesn't exist within the walls of NFL boardrooms, but is embedded into the league's fabric: racial prejudice and stereotyping.
Today, Peyton Hillis, the Cleveland Browns' most impressive running back since Kevin Mack, is the latest "victim" of the NFL's color cycle. Hillis isn't the run of the mill 6-foot-2, 250-pound chocolate bruiser. He's an Arkansas born-and-raised white guy. Don't you remember the white running back who starred at the University of Arkansas before Darren McFadden and Felix Jones (both African-Americans) pushed him off the depth chart? What about the guy who played for the Broncos and averaged 5 yards per carry before being traded to the Browns? None of this rings a bell?
I'm sure, too, that you are familiar with the names Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter. These two bronzed tailbacks are the guys Broncos coach Josh McDaniels felt were better than Hillis. Buckhalter missed the 2002, 2004 and 2005 seasons with knee injuries. Apparently a white running back who struggled because he was pigeon-holed as a fullback isn't as valued as a black running back with multiple knee injuries. This is eerily similar to the early years in the NFL when black players struggled with typecasting but kept their mouths shut for fear of being labeled a "troublemaker."
Many NFL coaches pounded the notion into Hillis' head that he could only be a fullback in the NFL and he should brush up on his special teams play. Evidently, that's as far as his skin tone would take him.
It is also widely known that former Stanford star Toby Gerhart was advised to do the same. Gerhart was the 2009 Heisman Trophy runner-up, Doak Walker Award winner, consensus All-America -- and second-round draft pick. The only way a black running back enters the NFL with that kind of resume without being drafted in the first round is if his 40-yard dash time is slow, like Shonn Greene.
The Cleveland Browns drafted Montario Hardesty in the second round, eight picks after Gerhart was selected. Hardesty endured multiple knee surgeries in college -- to the point he had to take a medical redshirt year to recover from injuries.
The Browns traded away three draft picks in order to move into the second round to draft an injury-prone running back. This is the running back the Browns envisioned establishing their run game, not Peyton Hillis.
After the 1932 season, Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall -- affectionately known, according to African-American studies professor Dr. Charles Ross, as the "... leading racist in the NFL" -- convinced other club owners to implement a non-formal ban of black players. This "ban" lasted 13 seasons.
Understanding there was a 13-year period when no black players were allowed to participate in the NFL is critical in understanding why the prejudices and stereotypes exist today. There was a collective and concerted effort to maintain white rosters throughout the league that impacts today's game and thinking.
Post-1933 there were zero black players for 13 years, when the league was still in its infancy and going through its most formative stages. While the foundation of the game was being laid it was being done under the formidable flag of bigotry. White privilege constructed the concept of a quarterback, center, safety and middle linebacker. White thought designed who was deemed capable to lead and coach. White power built the game brick by brick and the mortar of racial intolerance holds the house together even today.
Integration didn't turn the NFL into a utopian society; it only guided the racial rhetoric into the consciousness of the landscape. Kenny Washington (HB-DB) and Woody Strode (WR) were the first black players to be integrated in the NFL -- and as more arrived typecasting took full effect.
The black players were placed at the "skill" positions, which is another way of saying they were asked to just run fast. Their white counterparts held on to the positions that were considered the "cerebral" or "central" positions. "Centrality" is an advanced theory many sociologists point to in order to explain why positions like quarterback, center, middle linebacker and safety were off limits to the black players.
These positions were "central" because they required critical thinking skills and communication to teammates. Black athletes during that period were deemed not smart enough to communicate effectively and incapable of leading. I don't want to fail to mention there was a natural quota system in play because all of the black players were competing for the same few jobs. So the league was "integrated" but with positional stipulations and numeric accountability. Black players readily accepted their "roles" because prior to 1946 blacks weren't playing at all.
The game grew and athletes of varied ethnic backgrounds began to excel at all positions. One would assume that this would be great for the game because performance would now become the ultimate deciding factor in who was considered capable or incapable. That assumption would only be partly accurate. It's partly inaccurate because of the foundation that was laid in the early years.
The coaches and executives were the gatekeepers of the antiquated ideologies on who was physically and mentally equipped for particular jobs. As the black players settled into and accepted their "roles" the white players did the exact same because players understood they could control only one thing and that was their performance. Coaches and executives understood they could control everything. Although the control quotient wasn't intended to affect the white athletes, bigotry's omnipotent presence through time inadvertently boiled over onto the white players as well.
As a former center in the NFL, I experienced what it was like to play a position that the NFL culture didn't envision me worthy of playing. In 2005 I was the only black starting center in the NFL. I was far from a pioneer. I followed in the footsteps of two of the league's greatest centers in Dermontti Dawson and Dwight Stephenson. My peers during that time were Matt Birk, Olin Kreutz and Jeff Saturday. I was much younger than those guys, but I was in the elite conversation based on my performance.
What was interesting was the type of conversation that surrounded my play compared to theirs. I vividly remember hearing a commentator speak of Saturday's ability to study defenses, lead the line and display his overall "cerebral" approach to the game. All of this is absolutely true, but Saturday and I played against the same defenses. I studied the same film he did and made the same line calls. I was categorized as "big and physical."
Growing up I wanted to be like Stephenson and Dawson, but once I reached the pinnacle of my success I realized in order for me to be respected as a complete player I had to sprinkle in a little Mike Webster and Mark Stepnoski. During my free-agent trip to Cleveland the offensive line coach took me into his office and broke out some film.
I assumed we were going to watch my highlight reel considering I was coming off of my second Pro-Bowl berth. Instead of the highlight reel, we watched clips of their offense and I was asked to identify certain defensive looks just "to be sure I understood the concepts."
To this day I wonder if the conversation would have been the same if Matt Birk or Jeff Saturday walked into that meeting.
There are seismic shifts taking place in the NFL and they are all for the greater good of the game. It's often said that change is good but change that is preceded by open and honest dialogue is better. Labor issues will be resolved, concussions will be handled more appropriately and helmet to helmet hits minimized, but will those changes leave the NFL where it genuinely wants to be?
The culture of the NFL was forged when the league's foundation was laid. This foundation is haunted by the ghost of George Preston Marshall and universally discriminates against black and white athletes. It's an irony that can no longer be ignored.
LeCharles Bentley is a former NFL player for the New Orleans Saints and current NFL analyst on FanHouse TV.