Is the criticism of QB Lamar Jackson rooted in racism?
The Heisman Trophy winner has all the skills but is being ignored in NFL draft conversations
The scouting criticism bombarding Lamar Jackson, the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner courting the affections of quarterback-thirsty franchises for the upcoming NFL draft, sort of smells like racism, but we lack enough evidence to positively identify it as such.
Had Jackson been aiming to become an engineer rather than an NFL quarterback, he would seek employment like anyone else, by sending a résumé to a hiring company. His name, Lamar Jackson, sounding obviously black, would, per social science research, likely lead to far fewer job interviews than if he had a white-sounding name like, say, Josh Allen, quarterback of the University of Wyoming, who is also vying for selection in the draft.
All of the top prospects this week are in Indianapolis being evaluated at the NFL combine. If Jackson’s résumé echoed the achievements of Allen but Allen received far more interviews, that would suggest racial bias in hiring that the social science literature has already demonstrated. I could not state with certainty, however, that any one engineering company that did not grant him an interview did so because the company presumed he was black based on his résumé.
We stand on much firmer ground when making claims about the existence of racism in the aggregate than in the particular. We should apply this to the discussion about Jackson as he enters the NFL draft: The broader criticisms against black quarterback prospects often carry that taint of racial bias, but we haven’t the required evidence to say the criticisms Jackson faces are instances of that phenomenon.
I love Jackson as a quarterback prospect and marveled at his gridiron heroics at the University of Louisville. True, his skinny, wiry build frightens me at the next level because of the elevated prospect of injury since I want and expect him to run to extend drives. But, provided he bulks up, I believe his pocket mobility and presence, the cannon hanging from his shoulders and his dazzling open-field running ability will enable him to become one of the best 10 quarterbacks in the league. Thus, the trickle of comments about Jackson needing to switch to wide receiver left me dumbfounded. The most vocal proponent of this idea, Bill Polian, said, “Exceptional athlete, exceptional ability to make you miss, exceptional acceleration, exceptional instinct with the ball in his hand, and that’s rare for wide receivers. That’s [Antonio Brown], and who else? Name me another one; Julio [Jones is] not even like that.” Polian added, “Don’t be like the kid from Ohio State and be 29 when you make the change,” referring to Washington Redskins wide receiver Terrelle Pryor, who switched from quarterback in 2015.
Jackson has endured other criticisms. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. maligned Jackson for inaccurate passing because his career completion percentage hovers around 57 percent. Football writer and former NFL scout Greg Gabriel dinged Jackson because, in his view, Jackson did not run a pro-style offense at Louisville. And before the start of the 2017 college football season, an unnamed ACC coach told Sports Illustrated that Jackson “can’t make the throws and can’t read coverages.” Various writers have vehemently and persuasively defended Jackson on each of these knocks.
About those knocks on his ability, Jackson told ESPN: “It is annoying because quarterback is all I played all my life. … People look at my legs and they see I can make big plays, but they don’t really see my arm, and I make big plays with my arm. I scored more touchdowns with my arm than my legs so …”
Why Jackson would find these comments annoying is understandable, while many have concluded them to be motivated by anti-black quarterback bias. Similar remarks have harassed black quarterbacks for decades. A few years ago I talked to Willie Totten, Jerry Rice’s quarterback at Mississippi Valley State, who drew no attention from NFL scouts despite completing 60 percent of his passes for 5,043 yards and 58 touchdowns in just his senior year. For far too long, NFL talent evaluators have looked at the black skin of a young quarterback and concluded that he could not read defenses, couldn’t stand in the pocket and throw the ball, could not lead a team to Super Bowl triumph and would be better off playing some other position.
Resulting from that history, remarks striking a consonant tone become classified as similar instances of discrimination. But Jackson’s critics might render the same appraisal were Jackson white.
People shouldn’t be careful here because of the mistaken belief that the charge of racism carries a hefty social cost and thus we should be reticent to apply the label, but because we should always aim for accuracy.
The criticisms whisking toward Jackson are consistent with the discriminatory remarks that dozens of black quarterbacks in college have heard over the years in preparation for the draft. Based on the evidence, that’s simply the most accurate statement we can make.