BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
Throughout the history of the NFL, minority quarterbacks coming out of college have been saddled with the notion that they don’t have the necessary skills to succeed in the NFL. As recently as last year, these quotes were offered about Lamar Jackson, the current front-runner for the league’s MVP Award by NFL draft analysts and former executives:
Hall of Fame GM Bill Polian, when asked about the top quarterbacks in the draft class, stated “I don’t think that Lamar’s in that discussion. In fact, there’s a question that he may be a receiver. No, I’m not kidding you. And that has to do with girth and skill set as well.”
Draft analyist Anthony Becht opined “If Lamar Jackson opens his options to multiple positions, he will play sooner in the NFL. If he commits to QB, it’s going to be awhile.”
Similar statements have been made regarding many minority standout college QB’s before they made their pro debuts. It may finally be time to retire that line of thinking.
Last week, San Francisco 49ers announcer Tim Ryan characterized Jackson’s skill on play fakes as being enhanced by his “dark skin with a dark football.” Four days later, the team suspended Ryan for what many viewed as a racist comment. In a statement, the team said that “We hold Tim to a high standard as a representative of our organization, and he must be more thoughtful with his words.” Ryan issued an apology, but was not part of the Niners broadcast team for their game against the Saints this past Sunday.
While it would be an exercise in reductionism to try to quickly describe how the NFL has evolved in its view of race in general, and minority quarterbacks in particular, the fact that statements such as those have been made in the past calendar year is more than a little concerning. It’s not difficult to imagine that for every quote that is made public, there are dozens of others that never surface.
Unfortunately, racism exists in every corner of our world, and is manifest in ways that are both overtly violent and subtly destructive. Only by identifying racist behaviors, comments and attitudes can progress towards understanding the nature of the issue be made, and it is incumbent upon those with a public platform to call attention to those examples.
However, inflammatory and hate filled rhetoric only serves to galvanize the closed-mindedness that helps perpetuate these problems. It is necessary to validate the outrage felt by those harmed by these tendencies, and to attempt to provide a forum for intelligent discourse to be shared in the aftermath of incidents such as the Tim Ryan situation. Whether he intended to appear insensitive to the nature of his words or not, he must know that those words have power, and that as a public figure, and one who represents the ethos of an entire franchise, he must be ever mindful of the words he chooses. His lack of awareness was rightfully met by a swift decision from the team to suspend him.
The history of the NFL is littered with examples of minority college quarterbacks who were not given a fair shot at competing for professional jobs because of firmly held, arguably racist biases against their mental capacity to master the rigors of the position.
Warren Moon was a star QB for the University of Washington in 1977. He led the Huskies to a Pac-8 title that year, and his college career culminated with a Rose Bowl victory over Michigan. Moon was named the MVP of that game. Despite his excellent senior year, Moon went undrafted in the twelve-round1978 NFL draft. He was able to find employment in the Canadian Football League with the Edmonton Eskimos, who recognized his talent as a signal caller. Moon helped lead Edmonton to five consecutive Grey Cup championships from 1978-1982, and was named the MVP in the 1980 and 1982 title games.
After a final CFL season in 1983 where Moon threw for a league record 5,648 yards and was named MVP of the league, the NFL finally came calling. He retired after the 2000 season and is now a member of both the CFL and NFL Hall’s of Fame.
It was 1978 when Doug Williams became the first African-American QB drafted in the NFL’s first round. Five full years would pass before another would be drafted by an NFL franchise. Williams would go on to become the first African-American to lead a team to the Super Bowl with Washington in 1987, and the first minority QB to win one as the Redskins destroyed John Elway and Denver 42-10 as Williams was named MVP of Super Bowl XVVII.
There have been more recent examples of minority college quarterbacks who were drafted in the first round and had successful NFL careers: Randall Cunningham, Steve McNair, Donavan McNabb, Duante Culpepper, Michael Vick and Cam Newton quickly come to mind. It would be difficult to argue that those players were not mentally equipped to master the skills required to succeed at the game’s highest level, and one would hope that their successes helped pave the way for the current crop of quarterbacks who are enjoying historic levels of performance.
14 weeks into the season, the top five rated quarterbacks by ESPN’s QBR rating, the most comprehensive measure of performance at that position, were all African-American’s. Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson and DeShaun Watson lead the NFL in that category, and, not coincidentally, each signal caller has his team in position for a playoff berth with only three games remaining.
Nothing speaks louder than success on the field. The current generation of minority NFL quarterbacks are helping their franchises win football games. Any argument that questions their inherent mental ability to interpret the nuances of the position, call audibles, read defenses and make good decisions should be quelled by the simple reality that they are doing so at the highest level right now before our eyes. If those biases and outdated stereotypes still survive, buried deep within the ranks of NFL decision makers and analysts, one can only hope that they can be open-minded enough to admit that they were wrong.
The best players should play, regardless of their race, creed or political inclinations. When that statement can be made without counter examples immediately coming to mind, progress can be acknowledged, and rightfully celebrated.