Super Bowl controversy is nothing newBy BY MARK H. STOWERS FOR THE E-T,
It’s Super Bowl week and the media have overtaken
Atlanta to ask the most mundane and silliest of questions to each and every member of the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams.
But there’s one story with a Mississippi connection. Back when the Clarion Ledger was a leader in news and sports journalism there wasn’t a finer sports staff. One writer, the late Butch John – an Arkansas native – covered Ole Miss while I was there.
He came across to me as a curmudgeon but I was naïve and 19 and didn’t realize nor understand his skills.
But after many road trips, I got to see his lighter side and enjoyed his press conference questions all the more.
Butch was covering his first Super Bowl and is infamous for a question he actually didn’t ask the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl – Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins in XXII. Back before social media and the internet and easy digital recordings, reporters gathered around the players taking notes and using microcassette recorders.
Williams was bombarded with questions about the significance of being the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl.
Butch decided to rephrase the question to get to the root of the matter.
“Doug, it’s obvious you’ve been a black quarterback all your life. When did it start to matter?” came out of Butch John’s mouth. But Doug didn’t hear it all and other media started scrambling around the overwhelming dumpster fire aftermath.
“What,” Williams asked, “how long have I been a black quarterback?”
Reporters, like officials, caught the second part of the play and not the first. They ran with it and Butch was hit with being the guy who asked, “the question.” All he was trying to do was draw a straight line on how childish and stupid the focus was set on Washington Redskins quarterback Doug Williams being black. Butch had known Williams, had covered plenty of high-profile football games that included black quarterbacks across the South so this wasn’t that big of a deal to him.
“It was the first question I asked at a Super Bowl,” John said.
John was in a room with “eight or nine players and 50 to 60 journalists” and he was next to Williams and he asked him. The writers around Butch didn’t hear the question clearly, and Williams was first taken back a bit by it. He did answer the question. But the journalists in the room thought they had their story.
How long had Doug Williams been a black quarterback? And other versions soon took life through news outlets across the US and around the world. As the great writer Mark Twain once said, “Never let facts get in the way of a good story.”
And the media had their good story – at the expense of a good writer, a smart scribe, a guy who was just trying to fight through the idiocy surrounding the event.
I made a Facebook group page, “Black Quarterback – What Butch John Really Asked Doug Williams” so Butch could tell his story. John had to retire from the newspaper business back in 2002 when his back wouldn’t let him work anymore. He had nine total back surgeries and had to live with a pump attached to his hip to keep his back filled with a pain killing narcotic just so he could function.
But before his back gave out, he was a dang fine journalist. His co-hort at the Clarion Ledger, who rode shotgun on many of those SEC and NFL games, was none other than Billy Watkins who recently retired from the CL. He started his career as a sports writer before moving into feature writing for the paper.
“The sad thing to me about it is that so many people identity him with that. Butch John, when he was in the newspaper business, was a fantastic writer. And I don’t say that lightly – I don’t say that about a lot of people,” Watkins said. “He could just write.”
Watkins was in the room interviewing Charles Mann and in his estimation was within 30 feet when the question was asked.
“I heard a huge roar of laughter,” Watkins said. “And everybody turned around at the time and then some guy walked by and said, ‘some guy just asked Doug Williams how long he’s been a black quarterback’.”
The duo met up later and Butch explained what had happened.
“He said, ‘I just got tired of question after question after question. Doug, do you know you’re black?’ But Butch has a real dry, very dry sense of humor. His wit goes over people’s heads sometimes. You have to know Butch to get his sense of humor.”
The Razorback writer was merely trying to steer the masses in the right direction and away from the drivel. Watkins knew exactly what his co-hort was up to with his line of questioning.
“It went over everybody’s head. But Doug Williams knew exactly what he was saying. If you think about it, it’s a brilliant question. Sarcastically asked, whimsically asked but it really was a great question that made people think for a minute,” Watkins said.
Butch passed away in 2014 from brain cancer and I like to keep the real truth about his infamous question out there. He’s got a 12,000-word missive about the whole event on the Black Quarterback Facebook page. It’s entertaining and informative.
Just like Butch. RIP, my friend.
I’d always ‘preciate your comments here or over at Facebook, or you can tweet me @markhstowers ... See yah next week! As a freelance writer, I’m working to grow my business and have created a GoFundMe page to help with that. Please take a look and see if you can help. I’d greatly appreciate it!
A Rebel, a Statesman — or Fightin’ Okra — and even a Trojan, I’m the Sunflower County farm boy with no green thumb who longed to live in the big city, got his wish and now is working his way back to the farm.
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