How Black Quarterbacks Defied the NFL’s Stereotypes and Racist Past to Become the Future of Football

Illustration: Francisco Navas/Guardian Design

As the NFL celebrates its centennial season, a rising vanguard of African American quarterbacks is shattering stereotypes at a position once considered off-limits to black players

From his seat at M&T Bank Stadium during last weekend’s NFL game between the Baltimore Ravens and Arizona Cardinals, Cyrus Mehri knew he was witnessing something special.

In a matchup of the youngest African American starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era, 22-year-old Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, the top pick in this year’s draft, threw for 349 yards in only his second professional contest.

Not to be outdone, second-year Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, also 22, became the only player in regular-season league history to throw for at least 270 yards and rush for at least 120 yards, leading Baltimore to a 23-17 victory.

As a fan, Mehri was thrilled. And as the civil rights attorney who helped establish the Rooney Rule – which requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operations jobs – he understood the deeper significance of the moment for a league that long has excluded African Americans from its most important and celebrated on-field position.

“Kyler Murray showed maturity beyond his years,” Mehri said. “They had no running game. The stadium is so loud. It was 100% on him. And he carved up the defense.

“Then you look at Lamar Jackson. His field awareness was so impressive. He can sense the pass rush and escape. He places the ball with nice touch. He’s showing the complete game.

“We’re trying to overcome 100 years – literally 100 years! – of stereotyping of black quarterbacks. And they demolished all of them in that one game.”

As the NFL celebrates its centennial season, the league is experiencing a changing of its quarterback guard. Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck are retired. Eli Manning has been benched. Ben Roethlisberger is out for the season, and faces an uncertain future.

Health permitting, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Phillip Rivers continue to truck along – but each is far closer to the end of their careers than the beginning.

All of those players are white. Meanwhile, the NFL’s most promising and accomplished young signal-callers are predominantly black: not just Jackson and Murray, but also Dallas’ Dak Prescott (26 years old), Houston’s Deshaun Watson (24), and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes (24).

And that’s not all. As Jason Reid of The Undefeated has noted, 2019 marks the first year in which the league’s reigning MVP (Mahomes), No 1 overall pick (Murray), highest-paid player (Seattle’s Russell Wilson), and a former MVP (Carolina’s Cam Newton) are all African American quarterbacks.

Small wonder, then, that Reid’s website has declared this “the year of the black QB”. Yet that same excellence raises a question: given that roughly 70% of NFL players are African American, why has it taken so long for the league’s marquee position to begin to follow suit?

The answer lies in a lengthy history of overt discrimination and subtle bias – and a determined, multi-generational effort by black athletes to overcome both.

“How do you get from there to here?” Mehri says. “You build a wall of integration. Bit by bit. Brick by brick.”

Separate and unequal

The NFL’s story began with a standout African American quarterback: Fritz Pollard, a chemistry major and All-American at Brown University, led the Akron Pros to the league’s inaugural championship in 1920.

In 1933, however, the NFL secretly decided to ban black players – reportedly at the behest of former Washington owner George Preston Marshall, a committed segregationist who in a 1942 interview argued that if African Americans were allowed to play, “white players, especially those from the South, would go to extremes to physically disable them”.

The ban mirrored the status of black Americans at the time: separate, unequal and living in a de facto apartheid state via Jim Crow in the South and a patchwork of exclusionary laws and customs everywhere else.

The ban also was rooted in the widespread, racist beliefs about black inferiority that underpinned segregation. In the early part of the 20th century, said Jay Coakley, an emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs and sports sociologist, whites assumed that African-Americans lacked the physical stamina and emotional courage to excel at contact sports like boxing and football.

After Jack Johnson became the first African American heavyweight champion in 1908 – and then defeated “great white hope” James J Jeffries in a 1910 bout that triggered white race riots across the country – that assumption morphed.

“You had the Negro Leagues in baseball, and similar kinds of [segregated black] teams in football and basketball,” Coakley said. “So what happened over time is that the racial ideology changed.

“Whites accepted that blacks were physically evolved, but decided that they were intellectually un-evolved – that they were actually lower on the ladder of evolution than white people, and somehow closer to our animal ancestors. And that’s the ideology, the cultural context, that prevailed when the major sports in the US were desegregated.”

Though the NFL lifted the ban in 1946, opportunities for African American quarterbacks were almost nonexistent. George Taliaferro became the league’s second ever black quarterback in 1950, and even made three Pro Bowls – but only as a rusher and receiver who never completed more than 16 passes in a season.

The league’s third black quarterback, Willie Thrower, was given even less of a chance to make a mark. In 1953, the Chicago Bears inserted him for a single drive against the San Francisco 49ers – and after Thrower completed three of eight passes to put his team in the red zone, replaced him with white starter George Blanda.

In sportswriter William C Rhoden’s book Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumph of the Black QuarterbackThrower’s son, Melvin, recalled that his parents owned a bar called “The Touchdown Lounge”, with a picture of his father on the wall.

“On the bottom, it said: THE FIRST BLACK QUARTERBACK IN THE NFL, 1953,” Melvin said. “People told him to take it down. ‘You’re lying,’ they said. ‘You’re lying. That ain’t you. Take it down.’”

Stacked deck

As football and American society continued to desegregate in the 1960s and 70s, the sport was rife with what sociologists call “racial stacking” – a sorting process in which individuals are funneled into certain positions based on stereotypes.

From Pop Warner to the NFL, the down-the-middle positions of center, inside linebacker and quarterback were considered to be “thinking” spots. As such, they were seen as too cerebral for African American athletes, who additionally were thought to lack the leadership and grit to lead other players and perform under duress.

Of course, this was balderdash. Sandy Stephens quarterbacked the University of Minnesota to a national championship in 1960, and many other black signal-callers at the game’s lower levels proved perfectly capable when called upon; meanwhile, plenty of white quarterbacks tossed interceptions, made boneheaded mistakes and otherwise labored in utter mediocrity.

Nevertheless, stacking had a pernicious, two-pronged effect: drastically reducing the pool of African American college quarterbacks who conceivably could be signed by a NFL team, and making it almost impossible for one of them to get a fair shake in the league.

Ken Shropshire, who competed with and against African American quarterbacks in a predominantly black high school league in Los Angeles, experienced stacking for the first time while playing for Stanford University in the 1970s. Black teammates James Lofton and Tony Hill both had been prep signal-callers. Both were converted to wide receivers in college.

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SOURCE: The Guardian, Patrick Hruby