Boclair: Thoughts about players' potential ought to be more than skin deep

Monday, September 6, 2010 at 11:45pm

The comparisons have been consistent.

Time and time again throughout training camp and the preseason, people have talked about Tennessee Titans rookie wide receiver Marc Mariani as someone who could be another Wes Welker or Brandon Stokley.

Broadcasters. Print and online journalists. Radio talk show hosts and callers. Bloggers. Fans on message boards. All of them have said the same thing.

For Mariani, a seventh-round draft pick who started his college career as a walk-on at Montana, it’s flattering, to say the least. Welker, after all, is one of the top wide receivers in the NFL, and Stokley had one 1,000-yard season when he was a member of the Indianapolis Colts.

For the rest of us, it’s a bit upsetting. Or at least it should be.

Mariani, after all, is white. So is Welker. Stokley too.

Is race still the primary means by which we identify our athletes?

The NFL apparently (hopefully) has moved beyond the time when it used to look at “black quarterbacks” as something of an oddity. Vince Young, Donovan McNabb, David Garrard, Josh Freeman, Jason Campbell, Michael Vick — there’s enough of them nowadays that they’re all just quarterbacks.

It seems the white wide receiver is something different, though. This incident seems to indicate that the first impression that strikes people for someone like Mariani has little, if anything, to do with his speed, skills or statistics.

If that’s the case, then we’ve made no real progress, and race remains very much an issue in the sport — it’s just shifted to a different position and a different shade.

Many will counter quickly and say that any comparisons have nothing to do with the color of Mariani’s skin but the fact that he seems well-suited for the role of slot receiver. It’s mere coincidence that it’s in that very role that Welker and Stokley made names for themselves.

Maybe. But why can’t Mariani be the next Derrick Mason?

After all, it was the Titans who drafted Mason in the fourth round in 1997 (OK, so they were the Houston Oilers when they drafted him and the Tennessee Oilers when he played his rookie season), just as it was the Titans who drafted Mariani this spring.

Back in his early days, Mason was listed at 5-foot-10, 188 pounds. Mariani checked in for his first training camp at 6-1, 190.

Mason’s value was enhanced by the fact that he was a return man (punts and kickoffs) in college. The same thing is true of Mariani.

If you want to look for an obvious way to chart Mariani’s development, do it against the career of Mason, who went from a role player to a record-setting return man and slot receiver to a top-end wideout. It’s the most obvious — and the best — comparison because he will develop within an offensive scheme and special teams philosophy that has not changed much since the days Mason played.

To rely on race in an attempt to quantify a player’s potential is insulting to that player and disrespectful to anyone, regardless of color, who has succeeded under similar circumstances. It’s just too easy to do. And when we do, it shows we are not willing to do the work needed to break down the racial divide that still exists in this country.

Sports always have played an important role in race relations, with people like Jackie Robinson, Perry Wallace and even Steve McNair.

In this case, though, we ought to look at the NFL as a clear-cut reminder that the issue is far from dead. That will be the case only when race is the last thing we consider about those we cheer, regardless of what position they play.

4 Comments on this post:

By: fdanshep on 9/7/10 at 6:52

Its a nice philosophical opinion but we're talking apples and oranges. The historical reason for the lack of black quarterbacks in the NFL was the perception that they were not "smart enough" to be an NFL quarterback, not that they were not physically talented. In fact, most were switched to other skilled positions, including wide receiver.

Lets face it, up until recent years, the same perception in part applied to black coaches. The fact that the Division I college ranks was not hiring and promoting black coaches was part of the problem but also position coaches weren't being elevated to coordinators jobs in the NFL

But I digress. Last year 65% of the players were black or mixed race. There is a reason for that. How many white sprinters compete for the US in the Olympics? The fact of the matter is that on average, skilled position black atheletes are quicker and faster. It has nothing to do with "smarts". It is a fact of life and to understand that is not necessarily "racist". So we can be beat ourselves up for marveling that a white Mariani may be the Titan's punt and kickoff returner or a valuable wide-out and we may be "guilty"of comparing him with Wes Welker, but the fact of the matter is that white athletes at that position are not being held back, they are just not as talented. That may never change and if it does not, the fact that he is white is not the reason.

By: Dore4Life on 9/7/10 at 8:38

SPORTS are inherently racist people. If one likes the players in the blue jerseys, One won't like anyone in the green jerseys and will be biased in their perception of things. Racism based on team affiliation. Popular Black culture and popular Hispanic culture is the same way. My team is my team. Stick up for the team before sticking up for righteousness. Titans fans' won't stick up for a Cowboys player over a Titan's player in a controversy, right or wrong. Red Sox' fans won't stick up for a Yankees' player over a Red Sox player on a controversial play, right or wrong. Lakers' fans won't stick up for a Celtics' player over a Lakers' player on a controversial play, right or wrong.

As for fdanshep, it's nice that you're trying to not be racist, but you are not doing a good job. BASICALLY, you're implying that when given an equal opportunity, blacks will typically perform better than whites athletically (American blacks in general, tend to shy away from sports where skills like running and jumping are not primary), and only don't perform in areas where intelligence is required as well as whites, because they aren't receiving opportunities to prove their intelligence is equal. Is that about right, or did I misunderstand something? Blacks are naturally more gifted athletically, but certainly not less gifted mentally? And THIS is not a racist notion because it's not dealing with mental capabilities, but physical capabilities?

By: not_guilty on 9/7/10 at 10:37

Just a point of curiosity. Is there a white punt returner in the NFL? If not, who was the last white man to return punts reularly? The only one that comes readily to mind is that Coach Fisher was a punt returner back in the mid 1980s when he played for the Bears.

By: FAMUAce on 9/7/10 at 1:26

Boclair has written a very logical piece. However, Wes Welker is an apt comparison to Mariani not simply because both are white, but because both are both returners and possession receivers with better than average speed. True, Mariani could be better compared to D-Mase or Troy Brown, but the Welker comparison is not solely based on race.