There is a good reason for the euphoria that legions of Black people feel and have been expressing about the historic first of two African American quarterbacks, Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts, facing off in this Sunday’s Super Bowl. It’s been a long, agonizing, painful road for them and the NFL to get to that point.
I still remember like it was yesterday that warm fall evening in 1973 when the Rams’ Black quarterback, James “Shack” Harris, started in a preseason game against the then San Diego Chargers. When Harris tossed a touchdown pass, Black fans exploded in near delirium. It was more than a pass, more than football, more even than a game to them. They saw this as striking a blow against the Jim Crow racism that for decades had blighted one football position -- quarterback.
At least that memorable night, Shack seemed to refute something I often heard my uncle, a consummate NFL junkie, say about the long-standing NFL bar to Blacks as quarterbacks: “They’d rather lose with a lousy quarterback than win with a good Black quarterback.”
Though Harris became the first Black quarterback to make the Pro Bowl that next year, it was still a rocky road ahead for other Black men in that role.
The formal ban on Black players in the NFL was firmly in place from 1934 to 1946. After the ban was lifted, an informal ban remained rigidly in place against Black quarterbacks. It took another four years before George Taliaferro became the first Black man to start for an NFL team at quarterback in 1950. During the next two decades, the number of Black players who took on the position could be counted on one hand.
The NFL template to enforce the color ban at quarterback went like this: No matter how talented a Black college quarterback was during those years, no NFL team would draft him to play quarterback. If a team did draft him, he’d immediately be switched to another position, usually defensive back or wide receiver. He would get to play quarterback only if there was an injury to the starting white quarterback – and even then, he was a last resort. And he would throw almost no passes.
Finally, after several record-breaking seasons in the Canadian Football League in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Warren Moon made the breakthrough for Black quarterbacks in the NFL when the Houston Oilers signed him on. Later, Lamar Jackson put his foot down and told the NFL he would play no other position than quarterback, and he refused to run dashes at the NFL combine. There was the very real suspicion that if he excelled, that would be the excuse to try to shift him to running back.
This pointed to the age-old standard NFL rationales for regarding the quarterback position as “for whites only.” Black people are great runners. They are great athletes. They are raw physical talents. But as for quarterbacking, forget it. It’s a thinking man’s, leadership position. It’s by far the most high-profile position on an NFL team.
Doug Williams’ record-breaking Super Bowl performance in 1987 is held up as the benchmark for the reversal of fortune for Black quarterbacks in the NFL. Since 1990, there have been at least five Black quarterbacks in the NFL every season.
Yet despite the near dozen relatively successful Black quarterbacks in the NFL led by Jackson, Hurts and Mahomes, the old notions die hard. In many circles, Black quarterbacks are still seen as primarily runners first – “dual threat” in the popular parlance – or branded as “great athletes” rather than “great quarterbacks.” As late as 2020, Hurt was still asked if he would switch positions. His answer was a firm “no.”
Even though Mahomes is now widely touted as the face of the NFL, he has his own crew of doubters. He’s protested that people want to talk more about his great throwing arm than his ability to direct the team and make critical play decisions. He reminded folk of Jackson’s refrain: “He threw for over 30 touchdowns, but everybody just wanted to talk about the runs.”
A 2015 study in the Journal of Sports Economics outlined one other glaring racial disparity: Black quarterbacks in the NFL are far more likely than whites to be benched for any real or perceived failure on the field.
Much is being made about the “historic first” of a Super Bowl with two Black quarterbacks facing off. This in itself is the greatest cautionary reminder about the NFL’s sordid past treatment of Black quarterbacks.
Fortunately, at least for this game anyway, things seemingly have changed.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the host of the weekly “Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show” on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network, and the publisher of the HutchinsonReport.net.