Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Warren Moon, Cam Newton and the CFL's land of opportunity

Former NFL and CFL quarterback Warren Moon is back in the spotlight this week, thanks to comments he made to CBS Sports' Mike Freeman about perceived racial bias affecting the way NFL draft prospect Cam Newton (pictured at left above with Moon during a Feb. 10 workout) has been viewed. In particular, Moon appeared to be referencing this report by Pro Football Weekly's Nolan Nawrocki, which caused quite the stir when it came out, thanks to comments like "Very disingenuous - has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup. Always knows where the cameras are and plays to them. Has an enormous ego with a sense of entitlement that continually invites trouble and makes him believe he is above the law - does not command respect from teammates and will always struggle to win a locker room." (For the record, Nawrocki has adamantly denied that race was a factor in his report.) Moon's comments will undoubtedly prove quite polarizing, and as Yahoo!'s Dan Wetzel writes, they may make things more difficult for Newton as well.

It's worth keeping in mind where Moon's coming from on this issue, though. South of the border, Moon's mostly remembered for his very successful 17-year NFL career, but he didn't have the smoothest path to the NFL. He started his college career at West Los Angeles College, as most bigger schools wanted to convert him to another position. Even after he turned in a great performance there, the University of Washington was one of the only four-year schools willing to take a legitimate look at him as a quarterback. He repaid their faith in spades, leading the Huskies to a 27-20 win over Michigan in the 1978 Rose Bowl, but went undrafted by the NFL that year (possibly because he refused to switch positions) and headed north to Canada, where team executives were more concerned about ability than colour.

Moon fit in perfectly in the CFL, sharing quarterback duties with Tom Wilkinson on the legendary Edmonton Eskimos team that won five straight Grey Cups; he also picked up plenty of individual hardware up north, including Grey Cup MVP nods in 1980 and 1982 and the league's Most Outstanding Player award in 1983. That led to his transition back to the NFL, where he became a dominant presence in the Houston Oilers' run-and-shoot offence. He then found various degrees of success in Minnesota, Seattle and Kansas City, but finished his career with 49,325 passing yards, nine Pro Bowl nods, three All-Pro selections and an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (making him the first and thus far the only man to be selected to both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame). It would be difficult to make a case that race wasn't a factor in the way Moon was initially overlooked by the NFL, and if it wasn't for the CFL being more welcoming, he likely wouldn't have a bust in Canton today.

Moon's far from the only black quarterback who was overlooked by the NFL, too. Perhaps the most notable case is that of Damon Allen, who started his CFL career in Edmonton in 1985, just two years after Moon left for the NFL. Allen also went to a less well-known school for the chance to play quarterback, but turned in a series of very impressive performances for Cal State Fullerton. Unlike his brother Marcus (who went on to a Pro Football Hall of Fame career as a running back with the Raiders and Chiefs), though, Damon was completely overlooked in the 1984 NFL draft (and was passed up by the fledging USFL too). He was drafted that year, but as a baseball player in the seventh round of the MLB draft by Detroit. Allen elected to pursue his dream of a career as a quarterback and headed up to the CFL, where he would go on to rewrite the league's record book in a career that spanned 22 years (and one that's likely to see him inducted into the Hall of Fame next year). Unlike Moon, Allen never got an NFL shot, but much like him, he found an environment in the CFL where he could survive and thrive.

Another prime example is that of Condredge Holloway, the grandson of a slave. Holloway was actually drafted fourth overall in the 1971 MLB draft by the Montreal Expos at the age of 17, but his mother Dorothy (NASA's first black employee) refused to sign the contract (Holloway was too young under Alabama law to sign for himself at this point) and sent him off to school. Holloway chose the University of Tennessee, where he became the first black quarterback to ever start in the SEC. He took the Volunteers to three straight bowls, but was only selected in the 12th round of the 1975 NFL draft by New England and didn't seem likely to get much of a chance to play quarterback for them. Instead, he headed north of the border and became a dominant CFL player with the Ottawa Rough Riders and Toronto Argonauts, picking up the league's Most Outstanding Player award in 1982 and leading the Argonauts to a thrilling 18-17 Grey Cup victory over B.C.

*As a note for those who appreciate CFL history, that game was in B.C. Place's first year, and it featured a wide variety of prominent CFL names, including current Hamilton GM Bob O'Billovich (Toronto's coach at the time), 2011 Hall of Fame inductee Don Matthews (in his first year as a head coach with B.C.), renowned kicker Lui Passaglia (who was just beginning his long B.C. career), legendary punter and kicker Hank Ilesic (who was playing in his seventh straight Grey Cup, as he came to Toronto from the Edmonton dynasty), memorable former Argonauts' coach Leo Cahill (perhaps best known for his "Act of God" quote, but serving as a TV announcer in this case) and legendary quarterback/general manager Ron Lancaster (also serving as a TV announcer).

Much like Allen, Holloway never really got a shot to prove what he could do in the NFL. Still, he had an incredible college and CFL career, and he was deservingly inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1999. ESPN's produced a documentary on him called "The Color Orange: The Condredge Holloway Story", which is airing on TSN2 at midnight this coming Tuesday. There's a very interesting quote in there from O'Billovich, which gets right to the heart of this issue: "The NFL was well known for not wanting to use black quarterbacks. I think there was a stigma attached, that they were more athletic and they ran too much and that kind of thing."

Whether racial issues like that are still coming into play with the evaluation of Newton or not is a matter of debate. Keep in mind that Newton is still widely projected to go in the top half of the first round, including Yahoo!'s Doug Farrar's prediction that the Buffalo Bills will take Newton third overall, so it's not like he's going to be completely ignored the way Allen and Moon were. There also has been plenty of often-personal bashing of another confident national-champion quarterback who came out of a spread offence, and that one happens to be white. Still, as much as many of us would love to live in a world where no one is judged by the colour of their skin, that's not our current world, so we can't necessarily just write Moon's comments off, especially considering the experience he has with this particular issue.

Moon (pictured at right carrying the ball for Edmonton in the 1982 Grey Cup), Allen, Holloway and others all were overlooked by the NFL, and most observers would probably agree with O'Billovich that their skin was a factor in that. They all found plenty of success north of the border, but that doesn't necessarily mean the CFL has always been perfect on racial issues either; the story of Cookie Gilchrist is just one example where there was at least perceived racism (and quite possibly actual racism) in the early days of the league.

However, on the whole, the CFL has provided some great chances for those overlooked by the NFL for a variety of reasons to still make a significant impact on the gridiron. Race is one of the most notable factors that's come into play over the years, and the CFL should generally be proud of providing opportunities for players like Moon, Allen and Holloway that the NFL initially passed up. It's not just race, though; there have also been plenty of great players who didn't initially get an NFL shot because of their height (see Doug Flutie), size (see Cam Wake) or other reasons (I'm still not entirely sure why the NFL never bothered to look at Anthony Calvillo), though.

The CFL's historically been a land of opportunity for the passed-up, and it's inspired changes in the NFL in the process; it's thanks to the trailblazing efforts of players like Moon, Allen and Holloway that Newton will likely be chosen in the first round this year, something that would have been unthinkable back when those guys came out of college themselves. That's not to say we should ignore Moon's thoughts and assume that everything's fine now; it's not all that long since Rush Limbaugh's infamous comments on black quarterbacks, after all, and it's certainly not inconceivable that race is affecting some evaluations of Newton. Newton is going to be selected high in the draft and have a legitimate chance to play quarterback in the NFL, though, and for that, he owes a lot to Warren Moon and the CFL.

Diora Baird Laura Prepon Ashley Scott Michelle Behennah Julie Benz

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