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.