Racial issues faced by black quarterbacks

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This article examines racial issues faced by black quarterbacks. In gridiron football and its variants, American football and Canadian football, the quarterback position is often considered the most important on the team. While there have been a growing number of players of African or minority descent throughout the history of collegiate and professional football, black players have historically faced difficulty in landing and retaining quarterback roles due to a number of factors. In addition, some black quarterbacks claim to have experienced bias towards or against them due to their race, and tend to be portrayed less favorably in the media than their white colleagues. Though opportunities have mostly opened up in the modern era, the ratio of black quarterbacks remains disproportionate to the overall ratio of black players, as 67% of NFL players are black, yet only 17% of quarterbacks are.[1]


Since the earliest days of professional and college football, the number of black players, let alone quarterbacks, has been on the rise. The first black quarterback to start professionally was Bernie Custis for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League in 1951.[2] The first two in the United States were Marlin Briscoe and James Harris, both of the American Football League, in 1968 and 1969, respectively.[3][a] The AFL was known to be more tolerant towards black players than the rival National Football League, which had harbored racist tendencies until the 1960s under the influence of Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall.[5] The two leagues eventually merged to form the current NFL in 1970.

The CFL was more welcoming to black quarterbacks than its American counterparts during the mid-twentieth century. By the 1970s, black starting quarterbacks were commonplace and included players such as Warren Moon, who won five Grey Cup championships in Canada before coming to play in the NFL. Moon's success largely broke the stereotype that blacks could not succeed as quarterbacks, which ushered more prominent black quarterbacks into the NFL starting in the 1980s.[1]

In 1971, 3% of quarterbacks in the NFL who threw at least 100 passes in the season were black, but by 2001 this number had risen to 35%.[6] The 1999 NFL draft was notable as eight out of thirteen quarterbacks selected that year were black. They include Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, and Daunte Culpepper, who were selected in the first round.[7] Michael Vick, who was drafted two years later in 2001, became the first black quarterback taken with the first overall pick in the NFL draft.[8] During the 2013 season, 67 percent of NFL players were African American (black people make up 13 percent of the US population), yet only 17 percent of quarterbacks were; 82 percent of quarterbacks were white.[9]

In 2017, the New York Giants benched longtime quarterback Eli Manning in favor of Geno Smith, who was declared the starter for one week. The Giants were the last team to never field a black starting QB during an NFL season.[8] Though progress has evidently been made, a 2015 study showed that black quarterbacks were still twice as likely to be benched than their white counterparts due to various factors.[10]

Since the inception of the game, only two quarterbacks with known black ancestry have led their team to a Super Bowl victory: Doug Williams in 1988 and Russell Wilson, who is multiracial, in 2014. Other black quarterbacks to start in a Super Bowl include Steve McNair in 2000, McNabb in 2005, Colin Kaepernick, who is multiracial, in 2013, and Cam Newton in 2016.[11]

In addition, these quarterbacks with known black ancestry have won the Heisman Trophy:[b] Andre Ware in 1989, Charlie Ward in 1993, Troy Smith in 2006, Newton in 2010, Robert Griffin III in 2011, Jameis Winston in 2013, Lamar Jackson in 2016, and Kyler Murray, who is multiracial, in 2018.[12]

Stereotyping of black quarterbacks[edit]

There is some controversy over how white and black quarterbacks tend to be described by the media, especially draft prospects hoping to make it into the NFL. Draft experts and scouts have a history of describing black quarterbacks in ways that perpetuate racial stereotypes and hurt those prospects chances of making it to the NFL as a quarterback.[14] Even those who make it to the NFL continue to face bias against them.[13]

An empirical study published in The Howard Journal of Communications supported this hypothesis. The researchers analyzed the written descriptions of quarterback prospects in the NFL Draft section of the Sports Illustrated website from 1998 to 2007. They looked at each player’s description for words or phrases about athleticism and intelligence and sorted them into categories based on whether they were positive or negative. A significant difference was found between how black and white quarterbacks are described by SI. Black quarterbacks tend to be praised for their athleticism and criticized for a lack of intelligence. Meanwhile, white quarterbacks are often praised for their intelligence and criticized for a lack of athleticism.[15] For example, Dante Culpepper and Tee Martin, both black quarterbacks, were described with terms such as “physical specimen” and “impressive specimen,” respectively. Meanwhile, white players have been described as “good signal callers,” and “real student[s] of the game.”[14]

Wonderlic testing[edit]

During the NFL Combine, players are given the Wonderlic Personnel Test, a test of mental aptitude. As of 2018, the average score of active Super Bowl winning quarterbacks is 30.7 which is particularly salient given the fact that a score of 22 is average and the position average is about 24. This list of winning quarterbacks includes Russell Wilson, who got a score of 28. Of all positions, quarterbacks and offensive linemen, particularly centers, have the highest average scores as well as the greatest percentage of white players. Tight end, the position with the next highest position average, also has a greater percentage of white players relative to the league average.[1][16]

There is evidence that higher Wonderlic scores are mildly correlated with lower interception rates and higher passer ratings.[17][18] However, the Wonderlic test has not been without criticism, with some claiming it is racially biased.[19][20] In addition, some quarterbacks with low scores, such as Donovan McNabb and Jim Kelly (15 for both), have had long successful careers in the NFL.[21] In 2013, the NFL began administering the Player Assessment Tool, an additional test of mental aptitude to go alongside the Wonderlic during the combine process.[22]

Notable examples of quarterbacks affected by racial stereotyping[edit]

Marlin Briscoe[edit]

After a successful college career as a quarterback, the Denver Broncos drafted Marlin Briscoe in the 14th round of the 1968 NFL/AFL draft, with plans to shift him to the defensive secondary. It was commonplace back then to convert black players who had played quarterback to other positions, but Briscoe did not sign with Denver until he was promised a chance to practice at quarterback.[23] After injuries to Denver’s starter, Marlin Briscoe became the first black quarterback to start a game in an American major professional football league in 1968. That season, Briscoe threw for 1,589 yards, broke the Broncos’ single-season rookie touchdown record with 14, and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting.[24] Regardless, it became clear that Denver would no longer play him at quarterback, so Briscoe asked for and was granted his release.[23] He then signed with the Buffalo Bills, who put him at wide receiver. Despite his success as a receiver in Buffalo and later with the Miami Dolphins, Briscoe never played quarterback again for the rest of his career.[25]

A similar trend would follow Lamar Jackson, another black quarterback, during the 2018 NFL Draft. Despite a prolific career as Louisville's quarterback, Jackson received suggestions to switch to receiver by certain pundits, a notion that he adamantly fought off during the draft process.[26][27]

James Harris[edit]

While Briscoe never played quarterback for the Bills, his teammate James "Shack" Harris got the honor of being the first black quarterback to start for the team and was the second overall to start for a team in NFL history. After being released by the Bills and signing with the Los Angeles Rams, Harris stepped in for injured Rams starter John Hadl in 1974, and head coach Chuck Knox made him the permanent starter, a first for any black quarterback. Harris went on to also become the first black quarterback to make the Pro Bowl and start and win an NFL playoff game.[28] However, Harris received hate mail and death threats due to his race, which eventually required security guards to protect him both on the field and at hotels. When Harris suffered injuries, Knox was reportedly pressured by Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom to play other quarterbacks such as an aging Joe Namath and Pat Haden, even after Harris became healthy again and in spite of Harris leading the NFC in passer rating during his final year in Los Angeles. Harris's demotion and later trade to the San Diego Chargers became a racial issue in Los Angeles, with journalists such as Skip Bayless and Brad Pye Jr. covering the matter.[29][3]

Donovan McNabb[edit]

In 2003, conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh made headlines when he claimed that the media was biased in favor of Donovan McNabb, a prominent black quarterback at the time. Limbaugh stated that “the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well… he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he really didn’t deserve.”[30] According to Limbaugh, McNabb received more media praise than he was due because he was black. Conversely, in a study of news coverage of white and black quarterbacks, political Scientist David Niven of Florida Atlantic University found that black quarterbacks, including McNabb, did not receive preferential treatment by the media.[31]

Tyrod Taylor[edit]

A sixth-round draft pick in 2011 who had spent his early career as Joe Flacco's backup with the Baltimore Ravens, Tyrod Taylor claimed the starting position for the Buffalo Bills upon signing with them in 2015. Despite leading the Bills to snap a 17-year playoff drought in 2017, his last season with the team before being traded to the Cleveland Browns, Taylor continued to face criticism from some Bills fans for his perceived run-first mentality and indecisiveness. He was eventually benched one game for rookie quarterback Nathan Peterman, which later proved to be controversial as Peterman threw five interceptions in the first half of that game, forcing the Bills to revert to Taylor.[33][34] In a 2017 interview published by The Buffalo News, Taylor stated that he always knew he would be criticized more than his white counterparts, a sentiment also echoed by Vick and Newton, but that it drives him to be a better player.[13][32]

Deshaun Watson[edit]

Despite his ability to both pass and run effectively, Houston Texans signal-caller Deshaun Watson prefers not to be called a dual-threat quarterback as he believes the term is often used to stereotype black quarterbacks.[35] In 2018, Watson was the subject of racist remarks echoing these stereotypes after making a bad decision in a game. The superintendent of the Onalaska school district outside of Houston, Lynn Redden, came under fire and later resigned for saying that “when you need precision decision making you can't count on a black quarterback."[36]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Jordan, Billy Joe (2005). N.F.L. Black Quarterbacks Underrated. AuthorHouse. ISBN 9781420896657.
  • Martin, Wisdom T. (2003-04-01). Intentional Grounding: The History of Black Quarterbacks in the NFL. AuthorHouse. ISBN 9781403395535.
  • Rhoden, William C. (2007-01-30). Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumph of the Black Quarterback. ESPN Books. ISBN 9781933060118.
  • Williams, Doug (1990). Quarterblack: Shattering the NFL Myth. Bonus Books. ISBN 9780929387475.
  • An Essay About Black Quarterbacks and the Wonderlic


  1. ^ Willie Thrower played a game for the Chicago Bears of the NFL in 1953. While he did not start, he was the first black player exclusively listed as a quarterback to see playing time in the NFL. Prior black players such as Fritz Pollard, Joe Lillard and George Taliaferro had taken snaps at quarterback but were officially listed at other positions[4]
  2. ^ The Heisman Trophy is the most prestigious award for college football


  1. ^ a b c Jane McManus and Jason Reid. "The NFL's racial divide". The Undefeated.
  2. ^ Maki, Allan (May 17, 2018). "Bernie Custis, pro football's first black quarterback, dies at 88". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved February 13, 2019.
  3. ^ a b Friedman, Samuel G. (February 2, 2018). "The quarterback who paved the way for Colin Kaepernick's protests". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 13, 2019.
  4. ^ Reid, Jason (October 5, 2017). "Willie Thrower: A perfect name for a trailblazing quarterback". The Undefeated. Retrieved April 4, 2019.
  5. ^ Charles K. Ross (1999). Outside the Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League. New York University Press. ISBN 0-8147-7495-4.
  6. ^ Ferrucci, Patrick; Tandoc, Edson C. (2017-06-12). "The Spiral of Stereotyping: Social Identity Theory and NFL Quarterbacks". Howard Journal of Communications. 29 (2): 107–125. doi:10.1080/10646175.2017.1315693. ISSN 1064-6175.
  7. ^ Staff, Deadspin (February 6, 2014). "The Big Book Of Black Quarterbacks (Part 2)". Deadspin. Retrieved March 20, 2019. The 1999 draft was special because it was a banner year for black quarterbacks. Of the 13 taken, eight were African-American. Most of them, like McNabb, Smith, Culpepper, Shaun King, and Aaron Brooks, were seen as dual-threat physical specimens—an evolutionary step beyond weak-armed Kordell Stewart.
  8. ^ a b Johnson, Martenzie (2017-11-30). "The first black starting quarterback for each NFL team — and how long he lasted". The Undefeated. Retrieved 2019-09-04.
  9. ^ "The 2014 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Football League" (PDF). 10 September 2014. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 February 2015. Retrieved 3 February 2015.
  10. ^ Volz, Brian D. (2017-12-01). "Race and Quarterback Survival in the National Football League". Journal of Sports Economics. 18 (8): 850–866. doi:10.1177/1527002515609659. ISSN 1527-0025. Retrieved 2019-03-16.
  11. ^ "Black Quarterbacks Who've Played in the Super Bowl". NBC News. 8 February 2016. Retrieved 3 December 2018.
  12. ^ Dukes, Gamble (2018-12-10). "The 2018 Heisman Quarterback Color Rush Was Long Overdue". The Shadow League. Retrieved 2019-03-20.
  13. ^ a b c Kimes, Mina (November 2, 2017). "The great Tyrod Taylor debate". ESPN.
  14. ^ a b Bigler, Matthew; Jeffries, Judson L. (2008-03-04). ""An Amazing Specimen": NFL Draft Experts' Evaluations of Black Quarterbacks". Journal of African American Studies. 12 (2): 120–141. doi:10.1007/s12111-008-9036-7. ISSN 1559-1646.
  15. ^ Mercurio, Eugenio; Filak, Vincent F. (2010-01-29). "Roughing the Passer: The Framing of Black and White Quarterbacks Prior to the NFL Draft". Howard Journal of Communications. 21 (1): 56–71. doi:10.1080/10646170903501328. ISSN 1064-6175.
  16. ^ Clay Travis (April 24, 2017). "NFL Quarterback Wonderlic Scores Matter A Great Deal".
  17. ^ Austin Tymins and Andrew Fraga (April 23, 2014). "Wondering about the Wonderlic: Does it Predict Quarterback Performance?".
  18. ^ Josh Millet. "The Wonderlic as a Predictor of Performance in the NFL".
  19. ^ Ricardo A. Hazell (25 April 2017). "NFL Draft Wonderlic Leaks Reek Of Racism And Classism". The Shadow League. Retrieved 17 December 2018.
  20. ^ "Reminder: The NFL's Wonderlic aptitude test is totally worthless". Vox Media. 8 May 2018. Retrieved 17 December 2018.
  21. ^ Gladwell, Malcolm (December 15, 2008). "Most Likely to Succeed". The New Yorker. Retrieved January 12, 2013.
  22. ^ "Watch out Wonderlic, there's a new combine test in town". USA Today Sports. 17 February 2013. Retrieved 17 December 2018.
  23. ^ a b Reid, Jason (2016-08-25). "The rise and fall and resurgence of Marlin Briscoe". The Undefeated. Retrieved 2019-09-05.
  24. ^ "Marlin Briscoe, African American pioneer | Pro Football Hall of Fame Official Site". www.profootballhof.com. Retrieved 2018-10-23.
  25. ^ Taylor, Phil (July 6, 2015). "Marlin Briscoe". Sports Illustrated. 123 (1): 64–68 – via EBSCOhost.
  26. ^ Bell, Jarrett (2 March 2018). "It's insulting to suggest Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson should switch to wide receiver". USA Today Sports. Retrieved 27 December 2018.
  27. ^ Richardson, Shandel. "Former Boynton Beach quarterback Lamar Jackson out to silence NFL doubters". Sun-Sentinel.com. Retrieved 2018-10-29.
  28. ^ Reid, Jason (12 October 2017). "James 'Shack' Harris is prominent on list of groundbreaking quarterbacks". The Undefeated. Retrieved 25 November 2018.
  29. ^ Samuel G. Freedman (22 May 2018). "Chuck Knox should be remembered for making James Harris the NFL's first black starting QB". The Undefeated. Retrieved 25 November 2018.
  30. ^ "McNabb's performance: A Rush to judgment?". ESPN.com. 2003-10-01. Retrieved 2018-10-23.
  31. ^ Niven, David (2005). "Race, Quarterbacks, and the Media: Testing the Rush Limbaugh Hypothesis". Journal of Black Studies. 35 (5): 684–694. doi:10.1177/0021934704266083. JSTOR 40034343.
  32. ^ a b Kimberley A. Martin (26 October 2017). "Tyrod Taylor unfiltered: 'When we win, everything's great. When we lose, they want to crucify me.'". The Buffalo News. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
  33. ^ Sherman, Rodger (2017-11-15). "In the Middle of a Playoff Race, the Buffalo Bills Just Benched Tyrod Taylor". The Ringer. Retrieved 2019-04-04.
  34. ^ Rollins, Khadrice (November 19, 2017). "Bills' Nathan Peterman Benched For Tyrod Taylor After Five First-Half Interceptions". si.com. Retrieved November 19, 2017.
  35. ^ "Deshaun Watson, Jalen Hurts see 'dual-threat QB' in different light". USA Today. January 8, 2017. Retrieved August 24, 2018.
  36. ^ "Superintendent apologizes for comment about black quarterbacks". Houston Chronicle. 2018-09-17. Retrieved 2018-10-23.