Cross-posted at The Starting Five

Tim Tebow’s season is over, and I suspect within the next year or two, so are his days as an NFL starting quarterback given the statistical reality of his 6-week win streak. If true, his 2011 football legacy is that his star upstaged historic seasons by Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady.  Quite refreshingly, he has also helped ignite some excellent commentary on his intersecting racial and religious privileges. Analysis of  Tebow’s off-field privileges include “What’s Not to Love…: Start with his Anti-Abortion Ad”?”, “Tebow Exposed”, “What if Tim Tebow Were Muslim?” and “Waking Up From the National Nightmare”.

On the field, Tebow’s privileges were noticed two years ago as Baltimore Ravens Ray Lewis was “shocked” at the level of coaching support he received. This season, Tebow’s special handling as a “run-first” quarterback has inspired “Black Quarterbacks Suffer Again”, “What’s Race Got to Do With It?”, and “Would He Start if He Were Black?”. Perhaps no commentary was more personal and powerful than that of Kordell Stewart (go to 9:30 marker). And perhaps no website has been more consistently on top of the compromised plight of “The Black Quarterback” as The Starting Five. For starters go here, here, and here.

Is Tebow’s privileged status from just being white (male heterosexual Christian), or is it from just being Tebow (the Florida Gator God)? While the answer is “both”, a closer look is necessary to see how much Tebow’s privileges extend to other white NFL quarterbacks.

One of Tebow’s greatest privileges has been his “freedom to fail”. When he had a truly atrocious training camp, he wasn’t cut, but promoted to back-up. When his humiliating loss against the Lions revolutionized the term “incomplete pass”, he was still granted another start. When his arm failed, the offense was changed to suit his legs. If he was terrible for 58 minutes, he was never benched for the final two (yes, I’m looking at you Mike Shanahan). Those last few magical minutes were called “Tebow Time”, but never “John Fox Time” (Denver’s head coach). The difference between Jesus and football is that NFL Resurrections require a coach’s permission.

But that was so last week and so 2011, this week’s career comeback kid is San Francisco 49er Alex Smith.

First off, a sincere congratulations is due to Alex Smith who engineered two late 4th quarter drives to beat the New Orleans Saints this past playoff weekend. It was very impressive as Smith humbled his critics (read: this author!). Prior to this year, the 2005 #1 draft pick had been the subject of ridicule while posting a won-lost record of 19-31 over his first five seasons. But that has all changed now. Some already believe that Alex is close to being an “elite” quarterback.

Even if Smith gets crushed by the New York Giants this weekend and even if he returns to “the old Alex Smith” next year, Smith’s pass to Vernon Davis will have already been etched in 49er playoff lore next to Montana-to-Clark, and Young-to-Owens. Now go ask any Yankee fan if Aaron Boone is a “winner”, and they will talk about a certain 12th inning home run, not his .170 career post-season batting average. Whatever happens from here on out, Alex Smith has already been redeemed.

But it makes you wonder:

“What is Troy Smith thinking right now?”

(Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Just last year, the former Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith shared QB duties with Alex in San Francisco. Some headlines read: “Troy Smith Does What Alex Smith Never Did” and “Troy Smith is the Real Deal”. Troy posted a 3-3 record, and Alex went 3-7, and both had comparable passer ratings. In 2011, Troy Smith was seeking his own redemption with the Omaha Nighthawks of the UFL. Poof! Just like that. He went from Alex’s equal to out of the NFL. In related news, the Redskins signed John Beck to compete for the Redskins starting job although he hadn’t played a down in four years (he is 0-7 now for career); the 41-year old Mark Brunell was signed by the Jets, and Harvard studies confirm that employers routinely see more potential in “Alex” Smith than “Troy” Smith in virtually any profession.

But in this particular case, was Alex Smith given the freedom to fail because of his potential as a former #1 pick?

If so, it makes you wonder:

“What is the 2007 #1 pick Jamarcus Russell thinking right now?”

Wait! Before you launch into a round of fat jokes, check out the nearly identical stats of Smith and Russell over their first three years:


First 3 Seasons







Passer Rating

Alex Smith








JaMarcus Russell








*Russell had 120 fewer attempts than Smith. When total is adjusted for equal attempts, Russell’s 4777 yards exceeds Smiths.

Russell even had a higher passer rating, but was gone from the league by the young age of 24. While the Raiders cut Russell to save millions, other teams could have nabbed him on the cheap. He’s been gone for two years now, and he wants another chance like Alex Smith. Is anyone is listening? Even Ryan Leaf got a second look!

The vanishing of Troy Smith and Russell highlight the NFL’s unwillingness to develop African-American quarterbacks during their growth years, and provide second chances after they fall – not even as back-ups. For the black quarterback, losing your starting job often means losing your job. With little exception (see Charlie Batch), the term “career-back-up” is a white thing.

“Redemption” is the freedom to fail repeatedly while still living to throw about it — otherwise known as the “The Kerry Collins Principle”.  It is not just Troy and JaMarcus either.  African-American quarterbacks with the most distinguished of resumes or the highest of winning percentages are denied Alex Smith’s line of credit.

And it makes you wonder:

“What are Donovan McNabb and Vince Young thinking right now?”



We’ll help answer both those questions in the upcoming parts of this White Quarterback Privilege series:

 Part II: “The System Privilege”: Caleb Hanie, Rex Grossman, and the Humiliation of Donovan McNabb


10 Responses to White Quarterback I: Tim Tebow, Alex Smith, and The Freedom to Fail

  1. David Leonard says:

    Excellent. If SF-NO humbled Alex Smith’s critic, what did his performance on Sunday do for the criticism. Nice work

  2. Tracy Devore says:

    I was all gung-ho to answer this article but now I just don’t know. As a black man I try to be very careful about making “What if [fill in person’s name] was black?” analogies. That type of speculation is generally counterproductive because one can never really know what would happen with a different reality. It usually just boils down to carping.

    As far as this article goes, Modi makes a compelling case. There have been problems with black quarterbacks in the NFL since it’s inception. I remember it being a huge deal when Doug Williams led the Redskins to a Super Bowl title. People were acting like somehow had taught a fish to ride a bicycle. So rather than refute this article I’ll simply add some food for thought:

    Tim Tebow is a special case. His arrival on the scene was a perfect storm of his having won 2 national championships, the Denver Broncos having horrible quarterback choices, the rise and current notoriety of the religious right and he, himself having the moral courage to loudly espouse his religious beliefs*. Alex Smith is a much better case study.

    But how good of a case study is Alex Smith? Comparing the statistics of Alex Smith and Troy Smith is a race to the bottom. When you’re talking about two middling quarterbacks how can you really know that Alex Smith wins out due to white privilege? It’s not like you’re comparing Alex Smith to Cam Newton and somehow Smith is named starter. As to the comparison with Jamarcus Russell much of the same applies. Also, you must take into account that Russell was perceived as having other problems not related simply to a young quarterback learning his craft. I don’t know if white quarterbacks have the privilege of eating themselves out of the league and still keeping their jobs (ok, just one fat joke). You must also bare in mind the problems with cross-comparing different organizations. The Raiders have different goals, a different financial situation and different ownership and management that the 49ers. That has something to do with whether Russell was given the “freedom to fail” as well.

    *What if Tim Tebow were Muslim? Stupid question. Of course he wouldn’t have the following that he has now. In fact, he might be in very real danger if he prayed facing Mecca after every touchdown. Is that a matter of white privilege or a matter of America being a very bigoted place? Or are those one in the same? Tebow has showed an amazing amount of courage in speaking out on his beliefs. Whether you agree with him or not, the fact is he could have just as easily been hurt by all of his displays of Christian faith. Would black quarterbacks be hurt if they expressed their religious and political views like Tebow? Maybe. They’ll never know until they have the courage to do it. I remember Reggie White being outraged after making an appeal to NFL athletes when black churches were being burned down in the south and no one would use their fame to draw attention to the problem. Instead of gripping about Tebow’s privileges, these athletes should be standing up for their beliefs instead of being afraid it will hurt them.

    Lastly, Michael Vick. First I’d like to point out that no one listened to me when I said that the Eagles’ signing of Vick was Donovan McNabb’s death knell, but that’s a different story. Can we really have a discussion on white quarterback privilege and not mention the comeback story of all time that is the career of Michael Vick? At one point he was the most hated man in America. There is probably no quarterback in the history of football of any race or religion who has been granted more of a privilege than Vick. It’s a miracle that he’s in the league. So when Modi asks what Troy Smith, Donovan McNabb and Vince Young are thinking I imagine it’s pretty much along the lines of “Wow! That Michael Vick is one lucky SOB!”.

    So, like I said I’m not refuting this article but I do think there are things to think about before making an accusation of widespread white quarterback privilege.

  3. MODI says:

    Tracy, firstly, thank you for your comment, and your food for thought is much appreciated for this new blog. Let’s chew on your last two points which address overall article theme.

    I probably could have been clearer on the distinction on opportunities between average QBs vs. still-in-prime “superstar” QBs. Someone with Mike Vick’s franchise-changing abilities will tend to land a job for that very rare reason. While Vick is indeed “lucky” in the “everyday man” sense, he is not by the unique standards applied to superstar NFL QBs. In this context, Ben Roethlisberger might snatch the Most Lucky Player Award as he had neither a Georgia Police Dept., a federal govt, nor a monster media pursue him with even a fraction of the vigor that helped put Vick in prison (subject for lengthier article). Beyond that, Vick still did go to jail, and still did “pay his dues” as defined by our justice system. On the field, a healthy Vick is a top-5 QB in a league with over 100 of them. This is not luck, but clearly merit.

    We definitely agree that there are many diverse factors driving Tebow’s popularity. And I can also see why solely based off this one article that there might be skepticism for of the role of white quarterback privilege. Fair enough. In upcoming parts of this series, multiple case studies will be offered of fair to average men named Caleb Hanie, Rex Grossman, Kerry Collins, and others, and hopefully it will become more apparent that a pattern of privilege emerges not applicable to AA QB’s of equal and even superior talent. Thanks again and stay tuned.

  4. Tracy Devore says:

    Ok. Then perhaps you should rename the article Mediocre White Quarterback Privilege. Lol!

  5. Origin says:

    Just wanted to come by and say great website Modi and keep doing your thing brotha.

    Tracy as Modi pointed out he can name a truck load of white QBs that would never be in the league if they were black.

    From Rex Grossman to Charlie Whithurst. Do you remember when a 44 year old Vinny was given a job while he was on the couch chilling??? Yet someone like Culpepper is still looking for a gig. Or how someone like Brad Smith will never ever ever get a job as a backup QB, but forever will be a wild cat player. Yet a drug addict like Erik Ainge can be a backup QB while being treated for drug abuse.

    Also anyone with any sense knew that Vick would be back in the league because he moves jerseys and tickets. No one except Tebow can make the rating dial go up like Vick. Now the question I always had was whether “THEY” would ever give him a chance at QB. But I knew for a fact that he would play again.

  6. Origin says:

    Also Modi I sure would like to hear your view on the silence the media and internet forums have had on Dirk being placed in fat camp for a week. Along with how he is having career lows in points, minutes and rebounds after admitting he wasn’t in shape to start the season.

    I think this would be a great piece for you to examine how other star players were treated when they admitted they were not in shape to start a NBA season.

  7. MODI says:

    O, agreed on Dirk being important story. Besides not training after summer, Dirk also said how he was “sick of basketball” (see Serena backlash), and this after he didn’t shake hands after a past playoff loss (see Lebron). Dirk just doesn’t seem to fit that “me-first” spoiled athlete narrative. Definitely worth an extended piece.

    BTW, David Leonard/Richard King had a nice piece on Dirk’s “Handshake Not Heard Around the World”:

  8. […] White Quarterback Privilege Part I: Tim Tebow, Alex Smith, and The Freedom to Fail […]

  9. David Watts says:

    Thought I would leave this link for everyone to view and hear Terry Bradshaw’s racist comment about Miami Dolphins RB Reggie Bush TD. Please add this too the discussion as well.

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