clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Stigma about black quarterbacks still exists in the NFL

Black quarterbacks still have to overcome biases, but at least the situation has improved.

Lamar Jackson
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) talks with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady prior to an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, in Baltimore.    
Julio Cortez/AP

Race is never an easy topic to bring up in America.

But when we sweep the subject under the rug or shuffle it into the hall closet, we do nothing to shed light on the real racial problems that dog us as relentlessly as the quiet pull of time and decay.

I’m thinking here of race in sport, and specifically as it relates to roles of leadership by minorities. And even more precisely, how racial bias affects black and non-white quarterbacks because that position is certainly the highest-profile ‘‘leadership’’ spot in all of team sports.

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember when black athletes simply were not allowed to play quarterback at the highest levels.

The unwritten NFL rule was “white up the middle,’’ that is, the ‘‘thinking’’ positions: quarterback, center, middle linebacker, free safety.

Hall of Famer Willie Lanier blew up the middle linebacker concept in the 1970s as the Chiefs’ defensive leader. Dwight Stephenson became a Hall of Fame center for the Dolphins in the 1980s.

The free safety position changed when players such as Yale Lary and Jake Scott made way for black stars such as Willie Wood, Steve Atwater and Ed Reed.

Non-white quarterbacks were the last ones to gain traction, to even get the chance to gain traction. Indeed, if they were too athletic, black QBs could not fight off the demands of coaches who switched them to wide receiver, defensive back, even running back.

As high school scouting expert Tom Lemming said in 1987, ‘‘The guy who makes it is going to be . . . someone who’s 6-3, 6-4 and slow enough so you just can’t move him to another position.’’

This was cynicism at its finest, or worst, but over-the-top as it was, it wasn’t far off. For example, Marlin Briscoe was a very fast and strong-armed quarterback for the Broncos in the late 1960s, but even though he threw for 335 yards in a game in 1968, a Broncos rookie record that wasn’t broken until John Elway did it 15 years later, Briscoe spent most of his career as a wide receiver.

The stigma against black quarterbacks was supposed to have vanished for good after Washington’s Doug Williams led his team to victory in Super Bowl XXII in 1988. But it didn’t.

Indeed, the stigma exists to this day.

It might not be overt, not even conscious, and its presence might even be anger-inducing when suggested to those exhibiting it — this prejudice against non-whites at the highest position — but it’s there. Consider the facts, starting with this:

In the 2018 NFL Draft, four quarterbacks were taken in the top 10 — Baker Mayfield (No. 1), Sam Darnold (No. 3), Josh Allen (No. 7) and Josh Rosen (No. 10). All are white.

At No. 32, with the last pick before the second round, the Ravens took quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is black.

It wasn’t like Jackson, from Louisville, was a hidden, unstudied talent less observed and prodded than the four above him. There was no mystery here. Indeed, Jackson had won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore, becoming the youngest athlete to be named the best college player in the land.

As a pro? Jackson to date has performed so much better than any of the four white quarterbacks taken before him that it’s flat-out embarrassing. If you saw him dissect and defeat genius coach Bill Belichick’s defense Sunday night in a 37-20 thrashing of the previously undefeated Patriots, you got the message.

Then there’s the 2017 draft, in which the Bears moved up to the second pick — their highest position in more than 60 years — and took Mitch Trubisky. Black quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson went 10th and 12th, respectively.

Results? Watson is playing like a cerebral wizard; Mahomes, last year’s league MVP, is a Hall of Famer in the making. Trubisky is hanging by a thread.

A recent study in the Harvard Business Review about unconscious bias in corporate hiring practices based on gender, physical beauty, race and ethnicity suggested that only artificial-intelligence programs could override the prejudices that are ingrained in all of us through adaptations and subliminal responses to role modeling in everyday society.

Maybe AI could do a better job than most NFL general managers and draft gurus.

Still, we’ve come a fair distance from the rigid olden days. Quarterback Kyler Murray, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner and the No. 1 pick of the Cardinals, is lighting up the field, even though he’s so short (a mere 5-10), he looks like a rabbit amid hounds.

But consider that his dad, Kevin Murray, was also a great college quarterback, the Southwest Conference touchdown record holder and a second-team All-American from Texas A&M who left school to test the NFL waters as a junior and was picked by . . . no one. That was 1987. This is now.

Baby steps, right?