And the Struggle of Black Quarterbacks Against the NFL’s Structural Racism
Lamar Jackson scored a total of 119 touchdowns in his 49 games for the University of Louisville Cardinals. He scored all of them came playing quarterback.
Twenty-five of those scores occurred before Louisville’s game against the second-ranked Florida State Seminoles on September 17th, 2016. Before that matchup, Louisville ranked tenth overall. Their status had everything to do with the game they played week before they squared against Florida State, meaning it had everything to do with their quarterback: Lamar Jackson. Because the week before Louisville played Florida State, Jackson embarrassed the Syracuse University Orange with his stunning and stylish efforts. Highlights of Lamar Jackson hurdling over the poor souls of the Syracuse defense became viral. His play made him a sensation, a sports meme, a face of a brand.
But, such flashes of brilliance, no matter how clickable or shareable — no matter how blinding — continue to be of little substance to many pundits. The established reputation of Florida State’s football team made them the favorites, and, alongside a Seminole victory, a more restrained, less stellar assessment of Lamar Jackson as a quarterback was considered to be a likely outcome of the game. Jackson had to play against his first “real” opponent, one with a “real” defense; Florida State would be Lamar Jackson’s first “real” measure of his depth as a quarterback.
The weigh-in would not be his last.
The University of Louisville, sensing the importance of the occasion, took the game as an opportunity to honor the legacy of the then recently deceased boxing legend and Louisville native, Muhammad Ali. The school invited Lonnie Ali, Ali’s widow, and Assad Ali, one of Muhammad Ali’s children, to attend the game. The school designed a special graphic — a white butterfly with the name “Ali” cut out of its center — and displayed it across the stadium: they printed it onto t-shirts worn in the Louisville student section, painted it onto a thirty-foot piece of the field’s northwest end zone, branded it onto a commemorative coin used for the coin-flip, and stickered it onto the back of each Louisville Cardinal helmet. The tribute seemed fitting for the Cardinals but especially for Jackson. After all, Ali also started his career under a shadow of doubt. Before he stepped into the ring as a contender against the much more established world champion Sonny Liston, Ali was considered by experts to be an athlete who was all flash and little substance.
Ali and Jackson were both picked to lose. Both shocked the world.
On that day against Florida State, Lamar Jackson drove back the shadow of doubt. Amongst the countless floating butterflies inside Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, Jackson was the fiercest bee. He blinded critics with his shimmering stat sheet, one that any college quarterback would envy: five total touchdowns, a 162.2 quarterback rating, 362 total yards. When the game clock ticked to a finish, the final score was 63–20 in favor of Louisville.
It would’ve been at that exact moment — before Jackson acquitted himself so well in the post-game press conference; before he continued his rise into national prominence; before the media began to compare him to college and NFL legend Michael Vick— that Ali would have pulled Jackson to the side and told Jackson to grip tight, to prepare himself. He would’ve told Jackson that, in America, the brighter the spotlight, the darker the skin, the larger the uncertainties.
He would’ve have told Jackson that the shadow of doubt would cast itself again…and again…and again.
After that game, Lamar Jackson scored 89 more touchdowns for the University of Louisville Cardinals — all as their quarterback. He was twice nominated for the Heisman trophy, winning the award once, for his play as a quarterback. Now, Lamar Jackson has come to this transitory moment in his career — a jump to the NFL — not as a running back, not as a wide receiver, not as some ambiguous athletic presence — but as a quarterback.
Without question, Lamar Jackson is a quarterback.
But, ask some NFL media, scouts, coaches, general managers, owners, or even fans about Lamar Jackson, and you might find this concrete reality cast under the shadow of the NFL’s longest-lasting and most ingrained institutional doubt: The doubt of the black quarterback.
In 1926, the NFL demanded that all of its black players leave the league — including the first black quarterback ever, Fritz Pollard. Twenty years later, in 1946, black players found their way back into the NFL, though none did so as a quarterback. Since that time, black football players have established standards of excellence at almost every position within the National Football League, although they’ve struggled to do so as quarterbacks.
This, quite plainly, is a reality that the NFL has made true on purpose.
To see this, one needs only to look to look at how the NFL has acknowledged the first black quarterback in the modern era. On a fall afternoon in 1953 — a whole seven seasons after the NFL removed its color line — the head coach of the Chicago Bears, George Halas, let his backup quarterback, Willie Thrower, command the Bears offense for a single drive against the San Francisco 49ers. Thrower completed three of his eight passes and led the Bears offense into the red zone, where Halas then replaced Thrower with his starting quarterback, George Blanda. Thrower was not allowed the opportunity to complete the drive he had started, but in that game he had accomplished something bigger. He had played the position of quarterback.
Such a historic victory for Thrower, though, has hardly ever been validated by the annals of NFL history, much less by their present voices. The first black player to ever throw a pass in the modern NFL is a name with little celebrity. There is no League-wide retirement of Willie Thrower’s number, no day announced in his honor. Most people barely believe he even existed, including those who were his closest friends. In William C. Rhoden’s excellent oral history of black quarterbacks in the NFL, Third and a Mile, Melvin Thrower, Willie Thrower’s son, describes his father’s legacy as one plagued by doubt:
“My parents owned this bar called the Touchdown Lounge. My dad had a big picture of himself on the wall. On the bottom, it said: THE FIRST BLACK QUARTERBACK IN THE NFL, 1953. People told him to take it down. ‘You’re lying,’ they said. ‘You’re lying. That ain’t you. Take it down.’”
This disbelief should not be a surprise to anyone, though, given that the NFL has done little to promote Thrower’s legacy.
The NFL has also done little to promote the success of black quarterbacks on the whole. It wasn’t until 1968, 15 years after Thrower’s debut, that a professional football team drafted a black quarterback in the first round, when Eldridge Dickey was selected as an “athlete” by Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders with the 25th pick of the AFL draft. That same year, Michigan State’s Jimmy Raye — who led the Michigan State Spartans to an undefeated record and a tie against Notre Dame in one of college football’s greatest games — was drafted by the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. As a cornerback. Raye played two seasons in the NFL before earning success in his post-playing career as an offensive coordinator for multiple NFL teams.
This year’s draft, the one Lamar Jackson finds himself in, marks the 50th anniversary of these players breaking into professional football.
It also marks the 50th anniversary of Marlin Briscoe’s selection by the Denver Broncos in the 1968 AFL draft, as well. Briscoe played quarterback at the University of Omaha, but Briscoe, too, was expected to play another position other than quarterback in the NFL. But, late in the 1968 season, the Denver Broncos had no other options to play quarterback but Briscoe, and the emergency allowed him to become the first black quarterback to start a game in the professional football. In the five games Marlin Briscoe started as the Broncos signal-caller, Briscoe scored 17 touchdowns.
Despite his success, he quit the team before the next season, after the Broncos head coach Lou Saban told Briscoe that he could no longer play quarterback. According to Rhoden’s book, Briscoe was blackballed by Saban. No NFL or AFL team would sign him due his insistence on playing quarterback. Briscoe was invited back from the Canadian Football League to play for the Buffalo Bills a year later, but only on the condition that he play for them as a wide receiver. He was considered to be an exceptional athlete who could make the position switch.
Around the same time they signed Briscoe, the Buffalo Bills also drafted James “Shack” Harris, a quarterback out of Grambling State. Harris would become a future Pro Bowl MVP later in his career as a Los Angeles Ram, but he was given little opportunity as a Bill. When he first arrived to the team in 1969, he was only allowed to stay on the Bills roster as long as he worked in the Bills equipment room, where he laced shoes for his fellow teammates.
Besides having to endure such indignities, Harris was also not immune to the threat that ended Briscoe’s career as quarterback — a looming position change from quarterback to wide receiver. With regard to black college quarterbacks, this specific position change has become a normal, accepted personnel pattern for NFL teams. Outside of the color line, this tactic has been the most effective to bar black players in the NFL from excelling at quarterback. The strategy accomplishes two goals for NFL teams. First, it allows teams to retain star college quarterbacks and potential fan favorites on their rosters. Second, because the switch is ostensibly made for reasons having everything to do with the player’s athletic ability and not his race, scouts, coaches, general managers, owners, and fans are absolved of any of the decision’s implied racism.
There are ways for black quarterbacks to combat this tactic, for sure, but almost all of them put the player at-risk of being wrongfully labeled as deceitful, distrustful, or malcontent. For example, during his time with the Bills, James Harris would purposely slow himself down while running wind sprints so that his coaches would never know his true speed. “We used to race after practice,” Marlin Briscoe recalls in Third in a Mile, “he, I, and O.J. (Simpson)…We’d run sprints when nobody was around, betting against each other, and Shack was right there. But he didn’t want them to discover he had this quick step.”
In 2018, Lamar Jackson addressed that same exact barrier in a similar fashion. By deciding not to run the forty-yard dash at both the NFL Combine and at the University of Louisville’s NFL Pro Day, Lamar Jackson asserted an agency akin to Harris’s. With the decision, Lamar Jackson is saying, simply, that he will not become a wide receiver. Unlike Harris, who couldn’t at the time, Jackson has made his defiance against the threat of a position change open and obvious to everyone in the NFL. This makes Jackson’s a brave, daring move. It’s one that might protect him from the switch, and also one that honors the legacy of Harris and Briscoe, as well the countless other black quarterbacks who stared down the threat of a position switch to wide receiver when they reached the NFL. If Jackson’s decision proves successful, other black quarterback prospects can use this strategy in the future. For that alone Lamar Jackson deserves praise.
Still, one has to question the reasons why, in today’s NFL, Lamar Jackson has to even do such a thing? Why does resistance to black players at quarterback still exists in the NFL? Why — fifty years after the drafting of Eldridge Dickey and Jimmy Raye, fifty years removed from Briscoe’s successful season for the Broncos — black quarterback prospects now face the same traumatic hurdles as the men who came before them did?
Why hasn’t there been any substantive progress within the NFL on this issue?
One believes that the NFL’s deepest institutional doubts about black quarterbacks cannot be far removed from America’s original, toxic, disease: white supremacy. It’s a disease that has infected all things institutional in our country, including and especially our sports. One can easily see that the quarterback position is white, and that with the exclusion black players from the quarterback position — no matter how subtle the means — the NFL protects the position’s attachment to whiteness.
A basic analysis shows the reasons why white coaches and executives would want to do so. Power is embedded within the structure of the quarterback position. For instance, on every play the quarterback is not just given the ball, he is entitled to the ball. This means that every play the quarterback is sole inheritor of deciding what to do with the ball. The quarterback is expected to make every call, expected to command the huddle, expected to direct all other players on the field. Some quarterbacks can call their own plays in the huddle. Even if not gifted that power by coaches, he is at least responsible for calling audibles and controlling the line of scrimmage. The quarterback is usually the highest paid player on the field. To protect the investment, the quarterback has become the most protected position on the field. He is offered the services of an offensive line. He has his own rule — roughing the passer — which protects everything above his neck and below his waist.
Everything on and off the field revolves around the quarterback.
Culturally, the quarterback is the field general, the golden boy, an ultimate reflection of American success. This contributes to the different standards of access between white quarterbacks and black quarterbacks. For instance, Joe Namath or Johnny Unitas — both contemporaries of James Shack Harris — never had to work in an equipment room in order to stay on a roster. Or, for a more recent example, Tom Brady was not punished by his coaches for the “Make America Great Again”
hat that he prominently displayed in his locker, though Colin Kaepernick has been effectively banned by NFL owners for displaying his political beliefs.
Or, finally, Josh Allen, another upcoming draft prospect from the University of Wyoming and contemporary to Lamar Jackson. One wonders if any scout has asked him if he would consider a move to wide receiver. Probably not, because Allen is the prototypical image of what a quarterback should be — tall, handsome, well-built, athletic, strong-armed, white — but has anyone tried to use his athleticism against him in the way that Briscoe had his athleticism used against him? In the way Lamar Jackson knows he might have his athleticism used against him?
No. His skin color prevents a move to wide receiver.
Which speaks volumes about the position of wide receiver.
If the quarterback reflects the immense power and privileges offered to white men America, then no other position in football speaks to the experience of black Americans as clearly as the position of wide receiver does.
Structurally, the wide receiver lacks agency. He is inherently without power. The wide receiver is placed on the margins of the field, as far away from the ball as possible. When a pass play is called, a wide receiver can do everything right — run a crisp route, beat his defender, get open — and still not be rewarded for his effort. He can’t complain about this, either. He is expected to never draw attention to himself, even though the position requires that he draws attention from the quarterback. If he does call for the ball in a moment of frustration or adamancy, he is branded a diva. If a receiver questions a decision by the quarterback or the coach, even if he is correct in his doubt, he’s considered to be defiant in the face of authority. At no other position is the behavior of a player policed as much by coaches, media, and fans than that of the wide receiver. From Michael Irvin to Terrell Owens, from Randy Moss to Odell Beckham, Jr., wide receivers are under a constant watch to remain stoic, to act right, to not dance, and to be respectable, which is just code for not behaving in any way that doesn’t fit white expectations of football players. The wide receiver is also the least protected player on the field. No matter how vulnerable catching the ball makes him, the wide receiver is expected to “go across the middle” and sacrifice his body to catch every pass. This inherent danger has been mitigated somewhat by newly established targeting rules (which, unlike roughing the passer, don’t protect a receiver’s legs) but those rules are constantly vilified by both NFL fans and media for their uneven enforcement by officials and their undermining of the sport’s violent integrity. Still, if the wide receiver doesn’t lay out and sacrifice his body to catch the pass from the quarterback, if he thinks better of getting himself wrecked across the middle of the field, he is branded as an unwilling teammate. For example, former NFL running back Ricky Watters currently is not in the NFL Hall of Fame today. This is not because of anything he did or didn’t do in his career as a running back, but rather because, on one play in 1995, he ran a route as a wide receiver and refused to lay out for the pass. Asked after the game about his decision to not go after the ball, Watters answered by saying, “For who? For what?” It was the second week of the season. Watters let one play go in a game of countless plays to preserve his body and his efforts for the rest of the season. Yet, that quote is the sole reason members of the media have not voted him into the Hall of Fame.
Speaking of media, the wide receiver is even culturally subjected to the whims of white expectations as well. For instance, it was not the actor Jerry O’Connell’s broad, boyish (and ultimately backstabbing) quarterback, Frank “Cush” Cushman, who saved the soul of the also boyish but not-so-broad Tom Cruise in Cameron Crowe’s 1996 film, Jerry Maguire. Rather, it was the mercurial, money-loving black wide receiver, Rod Tillman, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., who did so. In the football version of the “white savior” film — where the black character redeems the morality of the white character, who then goes on save the black character from some kind of oppression— the black spiritual muse is a wide receiver.
Furthermore, the wide receiver is the only position in football that can be appropriated in the same way that black culture in America has been appropriated. White wide receivers are considered by many to be “unicorns,” anomalies and exceptions. White wide receivers are labeled as “tough” and “gritty” by experts and fans, for the simple reason that a white wide receiver cannot possibly be as skilled as a black one. This kind of thinking is sealed on television studios where white pundits drool these descriptions over the Wes Welker’s and Julian Edelman’s of the NFL. Before the 2017 Super Bowl between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots, the very infamous white supremacist, Richard Spencer, tweeted this:
There’s a reason that the whiteness of the Patriot’s wide receiver corps, and not, say, the whiteness of New England’s offensive line, caught Spencer’s attention.
Yet, the wide receiver is also a testament to black success within America’s institutions. In 2010, the NFL Network aired a ten-part television series called The Top 100: NFL’s Greatest Players, which examined and ranked the legacies of the NFL’s best players. The number one spot on the list was not occupied by Joe Montana nor Tom Brady, not occupied by a quarterback at all — but by a wide receiver, Jerry Rice. Jerry Rice: the son of a bricklayer, the former draft pick out of the historically black Mississippi Valley State University. Jerry Rice: the NFL Hall of Famer.
But, Jerry Rice did not play quarterback, and like most success for black Americans, the NFL’s praise of his achievements is conditional on such praise not interfering with white power structures. To uplift the legacy of Jerry Rice is safer than to acknowledge and honor Willie Thrower. To honor Thrower would mean the NFL acknowledges that it somehow got it wrong on black quarterbacks.
And they have gotten it wrong. To this day.
If you say the words “black quarterback” to someone, what comes to most minds are the words “mobile quarterback.” This is wrong. And racist. “Mobile quarterback” is only a few degrees removed from wide receiver. The list of black quarterbacks who have played in the NFL is diverse, filled with men of various skills and styles. Michael Vick was a burner for sure, but Warren Moon was a statue. That fact didn’t stop NFL scouts from asking Warren Moon to play wide receiver. Doug Williams won Super Bowl XXII for the Washington Redskins while playing on a bum knee. He couldn’t run. Byron Leftwich led the Jacksonville Jaguars to the playoffs, and he was slow. Most of these players, if not all, were once a potential wide receiver in the eyes of people involved with the NFL. That now includes Lamar Jackson.
Even if many black quarterbacks do happen to be mobile, this stereotype persists in the NFL with disastrous consequences, especially from those at the ownership level. Recently, the owners passed a rule that established that when quarterbacks move outside of the pocket — which is mostly done by mobile quarterbacks — they are thus considered to be runners, meaning that they have forfeited the protections of the quarterback position. It presents a safety problem that will not frighten the likes of Josh Rosen, another quarterback in this year’s draft, but Lamar Jackson might be burdened to change his game and think twice about running, just as Russell Wilson and Cam Newton have had to think twice already. The rule also affects Lamar Jackson’s draft stock. Instead of developing their schemes to fit Lamar Jackson’s strengths (only one of which is his speed) coaches are now incentivized by this rule to pick quarterbacks who are more likely to remain in the pocket. Josh Allen and Josh Rosen will not face such consequences, in fact they’ll be helped if anything. But Lamar Jackson may be forced to become an entirely different player. And if, because he is playing against his abilities within a offensive system not designed for him to succeed, Jackson fails, it will likely be blamed by many on his poor “decision-making,” even though it was a decision made by the owners that mainly affected this outcome.
Imagine that: a black person being blamed for failing within a system specifically designed to ensure mainly white people’s success.
Lamar Jackson will also have to be a black quarterback in a post-Colin Kaepernick world, which is really just to say he will be another black player in the NFL. The world of the NFL has always been one where the owners target any black player who steps in front of their profits or power. Kaepernick has only reinvigorated their veracity. This world is unlikely to affect the personality of Baker Mayfield, another of Jackson’s contemporaries, just as it hasn’t affected established NFL stars Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. Baker Mayfield will probably not have to mind every word he says or carefully edit every statement he makes for fear of being policed out of the League. Rather, it will be Lamar Jackson who will have to decide if he wants to walk the white owner’s line. He’s already displayed a brave amount of individuality by not running the forty-yard-dash. How this move is received will ultimately be determined on draft night by the owners.
Essentially, out of all of Lamar Jackson’s evaluative shortcomings, those 32 owners are his biggest problem.
But, his problem is also us, the fans, who are partly responsible for reinforcing this structure. We, too, have helped establish the idea that a quarterback is not just a quarterback, and that a wide receiver is not just a wide receiver; that a white wide receiver is not just a wide receiver, and that a black quarterback is certainly not just a quarterback. We may not have noticed that we were reifying this ideology, but we have. Now we can, and must, fix it. Not just in the NFL, but everywhere else, too.
Many things can be done to change the NFL’s structure. Offering player personnel opportunities to black people seems to help. James Shack Harris’s post-playing career provides one example: during his time working in the Jacksonville Jaguars front office, Harris crafted a playoff team with three black quarterbacks on its roster — Byron Leftwich, David Garrard, and Quinn Gray. But expecting any type of sustainable initiative from this group of white NFL owners, who actively reinforce the doubt of black quarterbacks, is unlikely. Still, fans must clamor.
What we can do first is acknowledge the problem, which would in many ways reverse our contribution to this problem. To state that Lamar Jackson could succeed at wide receiver reinforces a white supremacist ideology that exists, unequivocally, in the NFL. These statements may not be intentionally racist. But, at best, these judgements are based on an unconscious acceptance of racist ideology, one that is often cloaked or mischaracterized as “analysis.” Whether intentional or not, these judgments have power. They perpetuate stereotypes. And, because this power is applied in a discriminatory way against black players, they’re definitely racist. Ideas rooted in white supremacist ideology are never simple, harmless thoughts. On the contrary, they are reckless, dangerous — threatening.
Both Eldridge Dickey and Marlin Briscoe struggled with drug addiction after their playing careers ended. Briscoe landed in the penitentiary for his use, but he has been released for quite some time now and is recovering. One doesn’t point this out to embarrass these men, nor to say that Lamar Jackson might face a similar fate. Rather, one points this out to show how terrifying the consequences of white supremacy can can be; how invalidating and insufferable they were for Dickey and Briscoe. To be told — all your life — that your merit is the only thing that counts, and to succeed — all your life — at the position of quarterback, only to have your merit and success not count because of white people’s conscious and unconscious racism? To find out your reality was really just a transactional fantasy? Well, that kind of pain would make anyone want to find escape.
One hopes, though, that Lamar Jackson will continue to be honestly weighed and measured by fate alone, as he was on that day in 2016 against Florida State. One hopes that Lamar Jackson is tested to prove his worth against the best defenses in the NFL. One hopes that Lamar Jackson is given the opportunity to play in the NFL as a quarterback. One hopes he succeeds.
One hopes this, not just for Jackson’s own sake, but for the sake of every black football player who endeavors to play the position of quarterback. Because Lamar Jackson has done, and continues to do, everything he can do to make real for himself the chance to be an NFL quarterback. The NFL needs to validate what Lamar Jackson has earned. We do too (and by we, one especially means white fans). If we don’t, we actively choose to continue to “perish,” as James Baldwin once wrote of white people stuck in white supremacy, “in their delusions.”
One hopes this because, without question, Lamar Jackson is not a wide receiver. Lamar Jackson is a quarterback.
Sometime during this week’s NFL draft, the commissioner or someone else will read some team’s pick and say, “Lamar Jackson: Quarterback, University of Louisville.” It will be another moment where Lamar Jackson will have once again driven back that shadow of doubt. Fifty years after Eldridge Dickey, after Jimmy Raye, after Marlin Briscoe, such a simple victory will be more meaningful than he could have ever imagined.