Year of the Black QB

Black quarterbacks are out here changing the game and how we see leadership

NFL’s black signal-callers make a way out of no way

The meeting between Lamar Jackson’s Baltimore Ravens and Russell Wilson’s Seattle Seahawks a couple of weeks ago, on one level, featured the kind of marquee quarterback matchup for which the NFL is famous.

But on a deeper, historical level it spotlighted two black quarterbacks (rare), each a possible MVP (rarer still) and a eureka moment that crystallized both how America views leadership, and how, week by week, black quarterbacks are changing the face and nature of the role.

With the score tied at 13 late in the third quarter, the Ravens faced fourth-and-2 on the Seahawks 8-yard line and Coach John Harbaugh had sent in the kicking team. But Jackson, 22, his second-year star quarterback, paced the sideline, urging a different call.

“Do you want to go for that?” Harbaugh asked Jackson in a late October video clip that’s been viewed more than 3 million times. “Hell, yeah, coach, let’s go for it!” the quarterback yelled. On the next play, Jackson, took the snap in the shotgun, ran right, juked left and ran up the middle for a touchdown, propelling the Ravens to a 30-16 victory.

“In my mind, they are the next generation of civil rights workers because in some ways, they’re risking their bodies to change a country.” — Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution

The significance of that moment wasn’t just in how it showcased Jackson’s elite athleticism, field awareness or football intelligence (which was also on full display in the Ravens’ win over the previously undefeated Patriots last weekend). And it wasn’t his preternatural confidence. It was that his authority was given free rein. It was that faith in a young black man inhabiting the quarterback position — which has been synonymous with leadership, and a tacit proxy for white masculinity for the century-long history of the sport — was rewarded and telegraphed around the country.

“In my mind, they are the next generation of civil rights workers because in some ways, they’re risking their bodies to change a country,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, who in May became the first African American secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in its 173-year history. They’re comfortable and confident enough “to take that extra gear and to do that thing that hasn’t been done before.”

The pace has been glacial, but over the past 50 years, we’ve “beat back the kind of pseudoscientific ways that people used to think about African American intellectual ability” and those associations with black quarterbacks, said historian Julian Hayter, who teaches leadership studies at the University of Richmond. “These dudes are actually out here throwing their way out of scientific racism.”

James “Shack” Harris won three conference championships at Grambling State University, where he played for legendary coach Eddie Robinson. But after refusing to change positions, he wasn’t selected until the eighth round of the 1969 NFL draft. Harris nearly walked away from football before Robinson persuaded him to fight for his rightful place in the league. He went on to become the first black quarterback to start an NFL season opener, start and win a playoff game, play in a Pro Bowl and be named a Pro Bowl MVP.

Harris sees the new prominence of black quarterbacks — this season ties 2013 for the number of starters, and includes the most celebrated players in the league — as a positive development for young African Americans aspiring to do anything. The quarterback “is perhaps the most singular position in all of sports in influence and leadership. And we have more blacks today participating, but I don’t think it’s increased our ability to lead,” Harris said. “We’ve been able to lead since birth.”

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes (left) of the Kansas City Chiefs shakes hands with quarterback Lamar Jackson (right) of the Baltimore Ravens after the Chiefs defeated the Ravens 27-24 in overtime at Arrowhead Stadium on Dec. 9, 2018.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Black quarterbacks were just rarely given the chance.

Hayter defines leadership as “a co-creational process based on role agreement.” In times of crisis human beings have a cognitive need to look to people with particular traits to resolve these crises and “in some ways, sports are controlled crises, right?”

The encoding of quarterbacks as white leaders is an agreement that was birthed with the sport that emerged from mid-19th century Ivy League culture. Quarterbacks call plays that direct other players’ assignments, touch the ball the most and are the most visible players on the field. Even as football migrated South and became more blue-collar, the quarterback position retained that association with intellectualism. The positions of center, inside linebacker and especially quarterback were held out as thinking positions, too complex for black athletes to master.

As 20th century black athletic achievements destroyed racist myths about the physical superiority of white men, and the civil rights movement helped open professional sports to black athletes, white team owners, coaches, media and fans clung to myths of black intellectual inferiority.

“There’s so many stories of black quarterbacks in college who get forced to play wide receiver and defensive backs,” said Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. Even Jackson, a Heisman winner, was doubted as a quarterback and criticized for not running a “pro-style” offense, which called for remaining in the pocket and reading coverage, before this standout season finally quieted that noise. Hard to ever imagine a white player with Jackson’s gifts being told to switch positions.

The question became whether black men, who were already leading black churches, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and their own communities, “had the capacity to lead white men and white institutions,” Neal said.

That question becomes particularly acute when you take into account the improvisational nature of black culture and how that shapes black leadership, especially in sports.

“Underlying that message really was that not only was the league fearful of the leadership potential of some of these men — and this is of course applicable to corporate America also — but they were fearful of the way that black men could improvise,” said Neal. And that means they could change the game in ways that were not intuitive or immediately replicable for white quarterbacks. (Not so much physically, but culturally, though with constant practice, the two go hand in hand.)

Black improvisation is best understood as a kind of creative problem-solving that stems from the dynamics of black life that often require you make a way out of no way, said Neal. “How do you problem-solve lack of resources? In another context, it’s Big Momma in the kitchen with a small amount of resources and a family of 10 to feed. And how does that get done night after night, week after week, year after year?” Neal asked.

Improvisational leadership gets encoded as “genetic” — as “natural” athleticism in sports — but it’s more specifically political, environmental, economic. And it’s smart. There can’t just be one way to get something done, because that way often ignores black people or works against them. In 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened with a permanent exhibit called Making a Way Out of No Way. The off-ramp thinking required to outwit challenges or gain advantage for black people in myriad aspects of American life gets stylized, and celebrated as a bedrock of black culture when it works. And when it works repeatedly, it changes the game — music, politics, science, sports —whatever the game is.

Last year, the reigning NFL MVP, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ no-look pass against the Ravens electrified the league, but it was also a play he’d studied and practiced since college.

People have the tendency to “think that our ability to improvise means that we don’t know how to play by the rules. No, it means we know how to play within them,” said Hayter. Jazz “is not an explosion of the rules, it is understanding the rules of musical theory so well that you can bend them in a way.”

The no-look pass and the stutter-step running of Jackson, and Michael Vick before him are examples of that improvisational leadership, said Bunch. “Improvisation is how black people have historically survived. So of course when they play sports, there’s improvisation. But that’s been held against them.” Especially in football, where improvisation at quarterback has been cast as an inability to process, and make leadership decisions. The traditional model is to step back in the pocket, and take what the defense gives you. But if black people just took what we were given historically, we’d be dead.

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson reacts after throwing a touchdown in the first half against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Oct. 27 in Atlanta.

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

“Look at Doug Williams. Just look at Patrick Mahomes. The list goes on,” said Hayter. “Look at Russell Wilson. These guys could extend the play in a way that changes our perception about what the [quarterback] position actually is. And I think in some ways that’s what people are reluctant to deal with.”

Consciously or unconsciously, for those wed to white leadership, the nature of quarterback play is perceived as a binary. Either resist adopting the changes, or, like the NBA, cede the league to black players. Rules enacted over the past 15 years to protect the quarterback, including recent changes banning a tackler from landing on the quarterback, make it easier to preserve the hegemony of white quarterbacks “trained to play a particular way,” said Neal. “You had men like a Randall Cunningham and a Warren Moon, obviously Michael Vick, come along,” Neal said, and “you now enact these rules within the game that in fact forces them to play the game in very traditional ways, and doesn’t protect them when they go against that script.”

Neal cites Carolina Panthers quarterback and former MVP Cam Newton, who has used his size and strength to run the ball, as an example. Critics say “he gets hurt because he refuses to play within this particular script, right?” said Neal. But it was that script that required his improvisational leadership in the first place: “I don’t have a great running game, I don’t have the best receivers,” Neal said, channeling Newton. “How do I solve this problem without them? I’m the most gifted athlete on the field. That’s how I solve the problem.

Sports has rarely been about fair and equal competition, “it’s been about perception, it’s been about leadership” and drawing audiences, Bunch said. And when it comes to the racial coding of the quarterback position, it’s about control. “And control is about fear.” One of the best ways to control black people has been to say they’re inferior, “but then you’ve got to put the laws in place to make sure you reinforce” those ideas, he said.

Any black person who has broken through a leadership barrier has to confront white fear that something is being taken from them, said Bunch, and their own fears about being good enough to carry the burdens of the race.

This is why the political activism of former quarterback Colin Kaepernick has kept him out of the league while playing out differently for other player/protesters. “Leaders are dangerous,” Bunch said. “If they lead down a way that makes people uncomfortable, they’re dangerous.

“The black quarterback is probably the most visible black male figure in America in terms of the number of people who see him play,” Bunch said, and that has a ripple effect as people start to recognize they have skills that transcend race. “But they never really transcend race, right? … You don’t have the freedom to be average. You’ve really got to be stellar or else you don’t get on a field.”

When he’s optimistic, he thinks “every black quarterback who throws a touchdown, who signs an autograph for a kid is really changing the way the world sees black folks.” When he’s pessimistic, he wonders “how many of us have to keep doing what we do” until black leadership is normalized.

Perhaps we’ll get to the point that even the black journeyman quarterback is a regular part of the league, and a face of black leadership. Right now, said Bunch, “we’re still kicking down the barriers.”

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.