The Rise of the Black Quarterback: What It Means for America
WCL kicks off Black History Month with Author, Senior NFL Writer, and ESPN Contributor Jason Reid
When ESPN reporter Jason Reid talked to Doug Williams on January 29, just minutes after the Kansas City Chiefs clinched a Super Bowl appearance—their third in four years—against the Philadelphia Eagles, the former quarterback was ecstatic. And emotional. ?
In 1988, Williams became the first Black QB to start in and win a Super Bowl when he led the now Washington Commanders to a 42–10 rout over the Denver Broncos. It was a trailblazing victory that paved the way for another first 35 years later: On Sunday, the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts will become the first two Black quarterbacks in NFL history to start in the same championship game.?
“[Williams] was very excited. This is something he was waiting on for a very long time,” said Reid, a reporter for ESPN’s Black-led media platform Andscape. “When you see a future generation stand on your shoulders and succeed, there has to be pride that wells up inside you.”?
Just three days after the NFL’s biggest stage was set, Reid met with more than 100 students, faculty, and staff at AU’s Washington College of Law on February 1 to discuss his new book, Rise of the Black Quarterback: What It Means for America. The event—which kicked off WCL’s Black History Month programming—was hosted by the college’s Sport and Society Initiative, led by N. Jeremi Duru, one of the nation’s foremost authorities on sports law.?
“I want students to understand that sport is a tool we can leverage to benefit and strengthen society when it comes to equity and race—and that positive change in sport can be a roadmap for society,” Duru said.
A quarterback is often the building block for a franchise and its highest-paid player and most visible marketing tool. But it’s also the position most rooted in systemic discrimination. Reid’s book details how Black quarterbacks were often moved to other positions because White teammates and league officials believed they lacked the necessary leadership and intelligence.?
He cited Marlin Briscoe, who played quarterback for the Broncos as a rookie in 1968. Briscoe broke team records as the first Black starting quarterback in the AFL—a league that merged with the NFL in 1970. He left Denver after one season and was converted to receiver in 1969. While he won two Super Bowls as a receiver for the Miami Dolphins, Briscoe never returned to the QB position.?
“There is a visceral pain in these men, who had dreams to play quarterback in the NFL but were then told they couldn’t,” Reid said.?
Warren Moon, for example, had to prove himself for six years in the Canadian Football League before the Houston Oilers gave him an opportunity in 1984. Moon—the only Black quarterback in the Pro Football Hall of Fame—remains 13th in career passing yards, 16th in passing touchdowns, and is tied for second in single-game passing yardage. He may have racked up even more NFL passing records before he retired in 2000 if he could’ve started out in the NFL.?
But Reid, who worked at the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times before joining ESPN in 2016, believes the NFL has turned a corner on embracing Black quarterbacks. More than a third of NFL teams started a Black QB this past season—compared to just four in the 2018 season—and 7 of the last 11 Super Bowls have featured an African American quarterback.
Reid said the pipeline of Black quarterbacks from high school to college to the NFL is also expanding. Since 2011, seven Black quarterbacks have won the Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player. Five Black quarterbacks have been drafted in the first round since 2019, and NFL.com projects three Black quarterbacks will be selected among the first 13 picks in the upcoming draft.
“There are more superstar Black quarterbacks now than there have ever been at one time,” Reid said.?While Duru agreed, he noted that most of the league’s backup quarterbacks—sometimes a pipeline to coaching jobs—are White. Duru is a leading expert on the NFL’s Rooney Rule, implemented by the league in 2003 to increase diversity in the NFL coaching ranks.?
By the end of the 2022 season, only 12 Black quarterbacks were listed as backups—just one more than the number of starters, despite there being nearly twice as many openings for backups.?
“An NFL coach told me in the next 5 to 10 years, you’re going to see 12 to 14 superstar Black quarterbacks, just because of the sheer numbers coming through the pipeline,” Reid said. “But it’s true there can be improvement in the ranks of the marginal Black quarterback.”?
Duru agreed there’s been progress. “But if we had true equity, then we’d have backup quarterbacks and starting quarterbacks roughly proportional to the number of Black players in the league generally [about 56 percent, according to a report from the University of Central Florida]. And we don't have either of those things yet.”?
~ By Jonathan Heeter
Photos by Amy Hart