The state of the Black quarterback
2019 was dubbed "The Year of the Black Quarterback," and the Black signal callers of the NFL proved that title right. They won MVPs, Super Bowls and topped the league in statistical categories. People are starting to focus on their achievements rather than their skin color—a prospect that didn't seem possible after Black players were effectively banned from the league due to pressure from Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall.
Black quarterbacks have come a long way, but it doesn't stop fans, NFL scouts or media members from doubting their abilities or scoffing when they protest civil rights. So while they are getting recognition as elite players, they still have a ways to go to be treated fairly.
The roar of the crowd cut through the cool Southern California night. The score cut a little deeper for the Chaminade Eagles, though.
With a minute and 17 seconds left, Chaminade found itself on the short end of a 44-40 game against the highly ranked Norco Cougars in the first round of the CIF-Southern Section Division II Playoffs on November 8, 2019. On the road with little more than a maxed-out TikTok video left in regulation, many would have given up hope for victory—especially a team that had lost so many close games at the beginning of the season.
Not quarterback Jaylen Henderson.
“We worked too hard during the week not to finish strong,” Henderson said. “We knew how it felt to come up short by a play or two, so we came back to the drawing board with our head up high, focused more and did a better job of finishing games.”
And did they ever.
With the ball at Norco’s 20-yard-line, Henderson rolled out to his left and saw his man Willy Camacho coming free on a wheel route. As he let the ball go, he was taken down by a blitzing defender.
“I was just hoping it would stay in bounds,” he recalled in a phone interview. “I trusted Willy knowing it was man coverage and that he would beat the linebacker.”
That’s exactly what he did.
Camacho came down with the ball and Chaminade won 46-44 to advance to the next round. The Eagles would end up advancing to the CIF-Southern Section Division II finals where they would fall to Sierra Canyon, but it’s not a bad place to end up for a team that was 3-5 with two games left in the season.
A couple of days later, Henderson would watch his favorite team and one of his favorite players dominate a division rival. The Baltimore Ravens had recovered from dropping two straight games and were on an impressive midseason run. Leading the charge was Lamar Jackson, who put the team on his back against the Cincinnati Bengals with four total touchdowns and this ankle-breaking spin move that led to a score. Jackson would guide the Ravens to 11 straight wins, a 14-2 record and their second straight AFC North title.
“He’s a spectacular player,” Henderson said. “He keeps the defense off-balance and that’s what I try to do.”
Like Jackson, Henderson is a Black quarterback. As of May 4, the junior quarterback had 24 scholarship offers from colleges, including Yale, Northwestern and Fresno State—all wanting him for a position that was effectively extinct from the NFL from 1933 to 1946 due to the shadowban on Black players engineered by Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall. But despite decades of owners, scouts and coaches hindering their efforts, Black quarterbacks are now the faces of the NFL.
In 2019, four of the top-10 quarterbacks in terms of passer rating were Black. Jackson secured the NFL MVP, and the Super Bowl MVP was Kansas City Chief Patrick Mahomes. Seattle’s Russell Wilson has also won a Super Bowl and Houston quarterback DeShaun Watson has been compared to Michael Jordan.
Still, while they pile up accolades, achievements and titles, Black quarterbacks entering the league are still asked to change positions almost annually despite proving their ability to play the position in college. Some of them are criticized when they protest social issues that affect Black people.
So, the question that needs to be asked is: Are Black quarterbacks treated fairly?
According to our Tylt poll, a large majority believe that the times have changed when it comes to perceptions of Black quarterbacks. 26.6 percent of our users with available age data in a poll from November 2017 to February 18 fall in the 18-34 age range. It’s not hard to see why when they dominate the highlight reels with their spectacular plays.
In 2019, 12 Black quarterbacks started at least one NFL game, representing 21.1 percent of quarterbacks who did the same—up from 18.5 percent in 2018. You can go back 20 years to 1999 when Black signal callers represented 14.5 percent of quarterbacks who started to see that the numbers are increasing.
Still, 70 percent of players in the NFL are Black, showing that the quarterback position is still lagging behind in terms of diversity. And it’s not from a lack of performance.
Doug Williams led Washington to a Super Bowl XXII win, even securing the Super Bowl MVP. Randall Cunningham led the league in passing in 1988. Warren Moon did that two straight years from 1991 to 1992. Steve McNair won the NFL MVP in 2003. The NFL has had decades to give more Black quarterbacks a chance, but a gap in numbers still remains.
Fresh off a 2019 season where he threw for 32 touchdowns and completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 3,851 yards and was second in the Heisman Trophy voting, Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts was asked a question that many Black quarterbacks have been asked when they make it to the NFL. Would you be willing to change position?
“I’ve always been a team-first guy,” he answered, “but I’m a quarterback.”
Even after he was drafted in the second round by the Philadelphia Eagles, many fans automatically compared him to New Orleans’ Swiss army knife (and white) player Taysom Hill. The same Taysom Hill who never got close to a Heisman Trophy and only completed 58.2 percent of his passes at BYU.
Hurts also quarterbacked two Power Five teams to the College Football Playoff, but fans and media members are still putting him in this “athlete” box despite his success dissecting defenses from the passing position. His story isn’t a rare one amongst Black dual-threat quarterbacks.
Lamar Jackson—Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson—was asked to run wide receiver drills at the 2018 NFL Combine. Why would an NFL scout ask a quarterback who had one of the greatest seasons in college football history to run routes?
“It has greatly to do with conscious and unconscious bias, and the way in which specifically whiteness has allowed us to believe how Blackness should operate,” The Ringer Staff Writer Tyler Tynes says. “Because of that, you have people like Lamar Jackson who’s told he should be a wide receiver. You have the perception of what Black quarterbacks should be.
“These things aren’t going away because we actually haven’t dismantled the mechanism in which we talk about racism.”
Like Jackson, Hurts is going to have to prove himself worthy of playing the quarterback position at the NFL level, despite doing more than enough to show his skills in college. The Eagles may be grooming him as a quarterback, but fans already seem sure he’ll be a one-off, gadget play athlete instead.
But what many seem to forget is just because he can run, it doesn’t mean he wants to run. He shouldn’t be forced to catch passes and run the ball just because he has an extra dimension. His athleticism should be an asset, not a curse.
Jackson proved what could happen when a system is built around a quarterback who is a dual threat. However, biases appear to still be alive and well if accomplished quarterbacks like Jalen Hurts continue to be unfairly put in a box.
While some quarterbacks like Hurts and Jackson are fighting positional perceptions, at least one is fighting for civil rights, and may have been banned from the league for it. It all started with a kneel.
Colin Kaepernick put his knee down to protest police brutality during the national anthem of a preseason game in 2016. The act by the 49ers quarterback triggered a conversation that burned for the entire season and beyond. The NFL has been infamously intolerant of anything that threatens the bottom line, and Kaepernick’s criticism of law enforcement before a game—synonymous for honoring the United States military—did not sit well with the league office or many fans.
Kaepernick started 11 games that season, going 1-10. It was a dreadful year for San Francisco, but he finished with 16 touchdowns, four interceptions, and a passer rating of 90.7. It was a middle-of-the-road rating (above quarterbacks like Philip Rivers, Eli Manning and Cam Newton), but Kaepernick went unsigned, not even as a backup.
Players use their platforms to promote the league, products and charities with no problem. But when Kaepernick protested the death of human beings at the hands of law enforcement, he was branded a persona non grata.
It was estimated in 2017 that Black people made up 12.3 percent of the population. According to Statista, 22.6 percent of people shot to death were Black – a number of them were unarmed. The proportions just don’t match up—a tragic inequity worth fighting for.
People decry Kaepernick for interjecting politics into their safe haven of football. But is bringing attention to unnecessary bloodshed in communities a partisan issue? Kaepernick continues to advocate for human rights and the critical refrain persists: Don’t mix politics with football.
Our onsite users have a different opinion. Nearly 80 percent believe that Colin Kaepernick is a hero for his actions. 58.9 percent of onsite users with available age data in a poll from September 2018 to November 2018 fall in the 18-34 age range.
The scrutiny is selective. Tom Brady brought politics into football by supporting his friend, Donald Trump, during the 2016 presidential campaign—literally a political statement. Yet, Brady did not lose his job with the Patriots.
The argument that Brady is a better football player than Kaepernick, and therefore retained his job, is a false narrative. Kaepernick is a proven talent, certainly among the top 96 quarterbacks available, based on his passer rating and past success taking a team to the Super Bowl. The bottom line: A player who endorsed Donald Trump kept his job and a player who advocated for Black rights has been pushed out of the NFL.
Does that sound fair?
The NFL, despite all of the injuries and microscopic scrutinization, is still the pinnacle of every football player’s dream. Unlike the pros, Black quarterbacks at the high school and college level seem to be thriving.
Tahj Bullock is the quarterback of St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, N.J. The coronavirus has changed the way he does his schoolwork, but it hasn’t changed the way he trains in the off-season.
“Getting body-weight lifts in, free weights, I do all that stuff,” he said. “Anything I can.”
Bullock is the ninth-best recruit in New Jersey for the Class of 2021, according to Rivals. The list of schools that have offered him a scholarship includes Boston College, Rutgers and UCLA. During his junior year, he completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,274 yards, 26 passing touchdowns and six interceptions, adding 480 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns.
At 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds, he has a similar build to Lamar Jackson and a similar dual-threat skill set. So it’s no surprise that Jackson and Cam Newton serve as his inspirations.
“I just love what they bring to the game,” he said. “I can see myself in their shoes.”
Bullock toyed with other positions as a kid but decided to stick with quarterback because he wanted to impact the game directly. While he recognizes the stereotypes Black quarterbacks face, he hasn’t felt any pressure from anyone to change based on his skin color, at least not yet. So, when he sees someone like Jalen Hurts get classified as an athlete and not a quarterback, it’s hard for him to understand.
“He’s a baller,” Bullock explained. “His résumé speaks for itself, so when I look at that, and they’re trying to switch his positions, it’s confusing.”
The confusion is understandable. With the abundant amount of high school and college programs across the United States, the opportunity for Black quarterbacks, whether they can pass, run or do both, is almost limitless.
Unable to get an opportunity to play quarterback at one institution? Go to one of the other schools in the district—or one of an estimated 16,000 high school football programs in the nation—to get your shot. The NFL is the only professional football league worth playing in (R.I.P. XFL and AAF). With 32 teams, and maybe three quarterbacks on an active roster, the scarcity results in selectivity and control over opportunities.
In the high school and college ranks at least, Black quarterbacks are allowed to play to the strengths and are rewarded for it. Ballers like Jaylen Henderson and Tahj Bullock have coaches who believe in their skills and have the freedom to operate within an offense catered to that. So why hasn’t the league figured that out?
For years, the NFL’s prototypical quarterback was a tall pocket passer. Athleticism was a plus, but not necessary.
With quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Brett Favre fitting the mold and succeeding, the standard was set and copied. Only a few times did teams venture out to find different kinds of signal callers, but their successes were considered anomalies.
In recent years, Black quarterbacks have been blowing down the door of the status quo to thrive in the league. Michael Vick’s dual-threat success underscored what could happen if the NFL just gave them a chance.
Quarterbacks such as Cam Newton, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes have led their teams with greatness, but the struggle for personal respect still exists. Newton, one of the best quarterback prospects to come out of college, was asked not to get tattoos by Carolina Panthers team owner Paul Richardson in 2011. Many fans took Richardson’s side.
Kicker Justin Rohrwasser, drafted by the New England Patriots last month, was pictured with a tattoo of the Three Percenters logo, a group of far-right paramilitary participants who the Southern Poverty Law Center confirmed as a white supremacist hate group. His right to have the tattoo was defended on social media, with supporters claiming he has been unfairly targeted by the media.
The inequities remain. Black quarterbacks will persist in the same way as they have for the better part of 30 years: making incremental progress until they will be solely judged for their playing abilities. Those who make it to the NFL inspire the next generation.
“No matter what race you are, just work extremely hard and don’t let the doubters get to you,” Henderson said. “Prove everyone wrong…Go to a place where you are wanted for who you are.”