How Black QBs Defied a Racist Past to Become Football's Future - Patrick Hruby
How Black QBs Defied a Racist Past to Become Football's Future

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
By Patrick Hruby | The Guardian | September 2019
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.

In 1968, Denver’s Marlin Briscoe became the first black starting quarterback in pro football’s modern era. Photograph: Denver Post/Denver Post via Getty Images

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 Quarterback, Thrower’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.

By winning NFL games with his arm and his legs, Philadelphia’s Randall Cunningham helped change attitudes toward black quarterbacks with fleet feet. Photograph: Owen C Shaw/Getty Images

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.

“I learned that was a regular thing,” said Shropshire, the CEO of the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University and author of the book In Black and White: Race and Sports in America. “Ironically, we had a contest in practice for who on the team could throw the ball the longest. James Lofton would win every year.”

When Denver drafted Marlin Briscoe in 1968, the Broncos told Omaha University’s star quarterback that they wanted him to play defensive back. Briscoe had other ideas. Nicknamed “the Magician,” he insisted that he wouldn’t sign unless the Broncos allowed him to participate in a three-day quarterback tryout at the start of training camp.

“They thought I was crazy,” said Briscoe, who grew up idolizing Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas. “It was unheard of to see a black man play QB in the pros. But all I wanted to do was showcase my skills.”

The tryout, Briscoe said, went as he expected. Seven other quarterbacks, all of them white, got to make 10 throws during drills. Briscoe always went last, and got “maybe seven or eight”.

At the end of camp, Denver named Briscoe a starter – at cornerback. But after starting quarterback Steve Tensi was injured and backup Joe DiVito struggled during the Broncos’ home opener, coach Lou Saban put Briscoe in under center.

Briscoe completed his first pass for 22 yards. He later drove Denver 80 yards, scored on a 12-yard run, and nearly led the Broncos to a comeback win. A week later, he became the first black starting quarterback in pro football’s modern era – and ultimately finished the season as the runner-up for AFL rookie of the year, compiling five starts, 1,589 passing yards, 308 rushing yards and 14 touchdown passes.

The following summer, Briscoe went back to Omaha to take college courses. His phone rang. “Denver was having quarterback meetings,” he said. “Here I am, the starting QB at the end of the season, and I didn’t even get an invitation to the competition.”

Briscoe flew to Denver. He discovered his services under center were no longer needed. “I never did get an explanation,” he said. “But I understood what was going on.” He ended up in Buffalo, where he played receiver and was named All-Pro before winning two Super Bowls catching passes for the Miami Dolphins.

Briscoe never played quarterback in the NFL again. But he had broken an important barrier. “When I got to Denver, it was always thought that you’d have a fan backlash, a player backlash, that whites wouldn’t root or play for a black quarterback,” he said. “Well, that was a myth.

“My offensive line, they were all from the south. Not only had they never played for a black QB, but prior to the pros, they had never played with black players. And the first thing out of their mouths was, ‘don’t let ‘em touch the Magician.’

“For them to embrace me, for the fans to embrace me, that was validating. And I knew that I had to succeed. If I didn’t prove that I could do it, then how long would it take for another black quarterback to get a chance?”

Forward progress

Other trailblazers followed. James “Shack” Harris – Briscoe’s roommate and mentee in Buffalo – became the first African American quarterback to start a NFL season opener, start and win a playoff game, play in the Pro Bowl and be selected Pro Bowl MVP.

In 1978, Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to be selected in the NFL draft’s first round. Nine years later, he made history again by starting and winning the Super Bowl with Washington.

Washington’s Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to be selected in the NFL draft’s first round ... and the first to start and win the Super Bowl. Photograph: Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Warren Moon – who went undrafted after wining a Rose Bowl with the University of Washington – won five straight championships in Canada before signing with the Houston Oilers and embarking on a prolific 17-year NFL career that made him the first black quarterback inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Like Briscoe, the African American signal-callers who came after in the 1970s and 80s couldn’t be merely average. They had be exceptional. They were given less time to develop than their white peers, and less leeway to make mistakes. They also had to fight against a racialized conception of how a pro quarterback was supposed to play.

Tall, statuesque pocket passers were the gold standard. Shorter, more mobile ones were seen as fragile and unreliable. Coming out of college football, white quarterbacks tended to fit in the former category, black quarterbacks the latter.

According to former NFL player and sports historian Mike Oriard, it’s no coincidence that the 6ft 4in, 235lb Williams wasn’t considered much of a running threat – or that Williams’ college coach, Grambling State legend Eddie Robinson, told Harris not to run the 40-yard dash for league scouts, the better to avoid a positional switch.

“The rise of black quarterbacks created the idea of the white quarterback,” said Oriard, an emeritus professor and dean at Oregon State University. “Before the stereotype emerged that black QBs were athletic, there were no distinctive characteristics associated with white quarterbacks.”

By winning NFL games with their arms and their legs, Randall Cunningham and Michael Vick helped change attitudes toward black quarterbacks with fleet feet. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, white signal-callers who could run and scramble, like Fran Tarkenton and Steve Young, were seldom disparaged as merely “athletic.”)

Concurrently, the evolution of the pro game turned a perceived liability into a strength. As passing became paramount and pass rushers faster and more punishing, quarterbacks who could escape the pocket, make throws on the move and turn surefire sacks into gains became increasingly valuable.

At the college level, black quarterbacks have become much more commonplace: since 2010, at least one African American signal-caller has started in the national championship game. Mehri believes that has produced a trickle-up effect in the NFL, as social science research indicates that companies are nearly 200 times more likely to hire a minority candidate if the finalist pool for a job includes more than one minority.

Of the league’s 90 quarterbacks currently active or on injured reserve, 19 (21 percent) are black – which means African Americans remain underrepresented at the position. Nevertheless, Shropshire believes that the gap is closing, and that the league is as close to being an on-field meritocracy as it has ever been.

“For those of us who follow this closely, the moment you sort of know is when you can no longer name all of the black quarterbacks in the league,” he said. “That happened for me a couple of years ago.”

Brick by brick

Some bias still lingers. A 2004 study of football scouting publications found that white athletes were more likely to be praised for mental abilities, while blacks received physical compliments. A pair of 2017 studies found that white and black college students were more likely to describe pro quarterbacks in stereotypical ways than not, and that whites in general assigned stereotypes to black signal-callers but not to white ones.

In 2009, an economics professor examined NFL data from the previous decade and concluded that black quarterbacks were roughly two times more likely to be benched than their white peers when controlling for factors including injury, age, experience, and performance.

Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes threw for 50 touchdowns, 5,097 yards and had a 113.8 QB rating last year, becoming the youngest player to win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award since Dan Marino in 1984. Photograph: Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Two years ago, a Guardian analysis of the previous seven league drafts showed that the average pick for a black quarterback was 70th overall as opposed to 53rd for a white quarterback – even though those same black quarterbacks had a career passer rating slightly above 90.0, higher than the average rating for their white counterparts.

“It takes a couple of generations to change the legacy of racial ideology,” Coakley said. “It’s dying a slow death. And we may be at a point where it is grasping to its last breaths.”

Tell that to Baltimore’s Jackson. Prior to the draft, veteran NFL executive Bill Polian suggested that the youngest-ever Heisman trophy winner would be better off playing receiver in the pros, while others raised concerns about Jackson’s ability to read defenses.

In response, Jackson declined to run the 40-yard dash for scouts. He opened this season by throwing five touchdown passes in a 59-10 victory over Miami, then told reporters, “not bad for a running back.” After out-dueling Murray, he had Ravens coach John Harbaugh deliver a more pointed message, one more brick in a wall of integration: not bad for a quarterback.

“To see how these kids have evolved from the era I played in and dispelled the myth that a black man could not think and throw and lead at that level, it’s just gratifying,” Briscoe said. “We’ve come so far. And it’s a long time coming.”