The Carolina Panthers may have lost to the Denver Broncos in this year’s Super Bowl, but as any fan of American football knows, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton dominated the media’s coverage of the sport during 2015.

Reaction to Newton’s behavior, on and off the field, has been far from uniformly positive. He is a superb athlete by anyone’s standards — in fact he was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player for 2016 — but he has been criticized for acting poorly after losses and for lacking leadership skills. In particular, people have expressed offense at his touchdown dance called “dabbing,” which stems from hip-hop and black culture. The New York Daily News reported that parents have written letters complaining about Newton’s “arrogant struts” and “pelvic thrusts.”

Has Newton, who is African-American, been criticized more harshly than would a white quarterback? The player himself suggested as much when in the days leading up to the Super Bowl, stating in a press conference, “I’ve said this since day one: I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to…. I’m true to my roots.”

Are minority athletes in high-profile positions viewed differently or held to a higher standard by America’s dominant white culture, as some have suggested? Why in 2016, 50 years after the end of segregation, is a Super Bowl quarterback’s race even a subject of discussion? What level of racial equality has been achieved in sports, and could this progress fuel a productive national conversation about racism in America?

“Positions that black guys played were … running back, wide receiver, defensive back. Black guys did not play what were considered ‘thinking man’s’ positions.” –Harry Carson

These questions and more were explored by current and former NFL players, lawyers, scholars and commentators at the recent “Beyond the Game: Tackling Race” panel discussion held in partnership with the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), the NFL — which held its 2016 draft this week — and the Wharton Sports Business Initiative. The event, held on Wharton’s San Francisco campus, aired as a special on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM Channel 111.

The Old Days

Retired Hall of Famer Harry Carson, a linebacker for the New York Giants from 1976 to 1988, remembers what it’s like to grow up playing football in an environment in which racial lines were unmistakably drawn. Carson today is executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a non-profit organization whose stated mission is to promote diversity and equality of job opportunity in the coaching, front office and scouting staffs of NFL teams.

“When you look at the SEC [Southeastern Conference] way back in the 1960s and 1970s, all of those players on the field were white…. You might have had one or two [black players] but it was not necessarily what it is now,” said Carson. He himself attended a historically black college — South Carolina State — and then was drafted by the New York Giants to play a middle linebacker position. It was an unusual offer for the times, he said.

“It was a position that was really reserved for white guys, because positions that black guys played were, you know, running back, wide receiver, defensive back. Black guys did not play what were considered ‘thinking man’s’ positions.”

Washington Redskins former quarterback Doug Williams, the first African-American starting quarterback to win the Super Bowl (1988), noted that the tendency to assign positions by race has historically been true of other sports as well. “Basketball, up the middle, the point guard and the center was a white guy. In baseball, the pitcher and the catcher, the shortstop, second base, center field, was a white guy.” That has changed now, he said.

Williams was drafted into the NFL in the late 1970s, like Carson, and joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He observed that at the time, “there wasn’t an article written that didn’t say ‘Tampa Bay’s Black Quarterback’, or ‘Doug Williams, Tampa Bay’s Black Quarterback.’ And I was waiting on that day when we [got past] that.” (Legend has it that Williams was even asked by a reporter, “How long have you been a black quarterback?”)

Notably, black quarterbacks in the NFL are still in the minority, so to speak. There have only been six to start in the Super Bowl in the past 50 years. Harry Edwards, an emeritus sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, commented, “Every time I heard somebody talk about ‘the black quarterback’ — because we have four Super Bowls in a row now where there’s been a black quarterback in the game — it tells us that we still have a major issue here [around race] that we have to deal with and have a discussion about.”

Carson and Williams said that the race issue in football has come a long way — “tremendous strides,” in Carson’s words — but that much more progress remains to be made.

“The Rooney Rule is garbage… We’re not fools here; we understand what’s going on.” –Stephen A. Smith

Hall of Fame former linebacker Willie Lanier agreed. Lanier was part of the Morgan State College team that in 1966 was the first historically black college to play in (and win) Orlando’s Tangerine Bowl, now known as the Citrus Bowl. At this year’s Citrus Bowl in which Michigan beat Florida, Lanier and his former teammates were honored for their achievement. He reflected, “Eight months before I went into the professional football ranks, I could not have played in that stadium. No one who looked like me could’ve played in that stadium.” Lanier said that the changes he has seen during his lifetime give him great hope for the future.

The Rooney Rule: A Band-aid or a Cure?

While there are more players of color in all positions in football today, the coaching and other front-office ranks remain primarily white. Panel moderator Christine Brennan, a sports columnist for USA Today, pointed out that while the NFL’s 32 teams have 67% African-American players, there are only six minority head coaches.

The hiring of coaches is often influenced by personal relationships, noted New York Giants running back Rashad Jennings. “The coaching pool, the whole entire culture, is an ‘I know you, you know me, so that’s how you’re going to get this job’… It becomes the buddy-buddy system.”

Panelist Stephen A. Smith, an ESPN commentator, agreed. “I’ve gotten into arguments with a few coaches over this, because I’ve seen them do it…. They hire friends,” he said. He stated that coaches do this not only to give their friends jobs, but to ensure they themselves will be provided with a “landing spot” in case they are fired. “But they don’t do that for the brothers,” he said. “They do it for each other…. To me that’s very unethical, unless everybody is included.”

One remedy set up to address the issue of low minority participation in coaching is the 2003 Rooney Rule, an NFL policy that requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for any head coaching position. But several players on the panel characterized the Rooney Rule as fairly ineffective. Justin Tuck, a retired Oakland Raiders defensive end, commented that he “would love to see some tweaks made to the policy…. When it was [introduced], good call, good reason. But I don’t think it’s actually being executed in the way it was meant to be…. Some situations, they brought in a candidate just to get across the Rooney Rule.”

Smith was the policy’s most outspoken critic. “The Rooney Rule is garbage… We’re not fools here; we understand what’s going on,” he said. He noted that the rule constitutes mere “lip service” toward racial equality. He explained that without an underlying system to recruit and develop minority candidates and help them cultivate relationships with management, minorities would remain at a disadvantage. They would be interviewed because of the rule but rarely hired.

The New York Times recently observed that the current “net result” of the Rooney Rule is that the league’s six minority coaches constitute “the same number as last season and one fewer than the peak, in 2006 and 2011.”

In Cyrus Mehri’s view, the Rooney Rule has made a significant positive impact over the years since its inception. A lawyer with the firm Mehri & Skalet, Mehri helped create the policy along with the late Johnnie Cochran, Jr., best known as the defense attorney in the O. J. Simpson murder trial. “In the 12 years leading up to the Rooney Rule, there were four minority head coaches hired. Since then, in the last 12 years … it is 16 minority head coaches hired. That is a terrific result, trying to advance toward equal opportunity.”

“In the 12 years leading up to the Rooney Rule, there were four minority head coaches hired. Since then, in the last 12 years … 16 minority head coaches [have been] hired. That is a terrific result.” –Cyrus Mehri

The Rooney Rule was also viewed in a positive light by Jocelyn Benson, the dean of Wayne State University Law School: “The Rooney Rule really demonstrates the power of sports to advance issues of racial equality on a broader level.” She noted that there were ongoing conversations about expanding it to college athletics, and that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had recently commented publicly about expanding the rule to include women. “Apart from all that,” she added, “kids at home [watching the Super Bowl] are seeing not just players who look like them, but people in positions of power and leadership positions … who look like them.”

What Does the Future Hold?

What does the future hold for racial equality in sports? Several players observed that if there is racism in football, it is not a factor among the players themselves. Baltimore Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson said, “Inside of the huddle … we are not thinking about the color of the men making the plays. Outside of the huddle, in the stands, I can’t say that that’s true.” Echoed Williams, “The problem stems from outside [of the dressing room and locker room].”

Most of the panelists agreed that great strides have been made in racial equality in sports over the past few decades but that much remains to be done. Benson described her outlook as “incredibly hopeful.” She said, “The progress that’s been made over the past 50 years demonstrates, as we often hear, that the arc is long but it bends toward justice.”

While acknowledging the legacy of trailblazing minority sports figures, Edwards expressed doubts about the power of sports to affect racism in society at large. Sports has “high profile and high platform,” he acknowledged, and it prompts a certain level of discussion about race. But he felt that discussion was limited. “In terms of the substance of it, if the shootings that we’ve seen on the streets in black communities don’t provoke an honest conversation, then let’s be real.”

He added, “There’s been a great deal of change. [But] how much progress there is, is another issue. Progress is one of those issues that’s like profit: It really comes down to who’s keeping the books.”