The Black quarterback

Changing the game

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Every position on the football field has its importance, which is part of what gives the team sport its beauty. But few would disagree that the most pressure resides on the quarterback.

The quarterback is the playmaker, thinker, unique leader of the team. They are analogous to a point guard in basketball, a setter in volleyball or a center in hockey. While each player has a role that constitutes a necessary piece of the puzzle, the playmaker connects those pieces — they are the glue that keeps the puzzle intact.

Marlin Briscoe was once the glue. In 1968, Briscoe made his first start under center for the Denver Broncos. It was actually far more than just his first start: It was the first for a Black quarterback in modern football history.

Although he ultimately would not be permitted to stay at the position, Briscoe was a pioneer for Black quarterbacks in the NFL, paving a path toward meritocracy for all — not just for white players.

Since Briscoe started that historic game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the league has been home to several Black quarterbacks such as Doug Williams, Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham, along with contemporaries Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson and Cam Newton.

But what Briscoe started was not a domino effect by any means — the league did not experience a rapid increase in diversity at the revered position. An article published by The Guardian in 2019 stated that only 21% of quarterbacks in the NFL were Black, despite nearly 60% of players being Black.

The discrepancy between the proportions is alarming and points to a racial barrier that still exists today, despite Briscoe having supposedly broken it 52 years ago.

Evidence highlights just how integrated racism and its stereotypes are in the NFL. Moon, the first Black quarterback in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said in an article by The Undefeated that the “‘thinking’ positions down the middle … were the ones that we weren’t allowed to play.”

But that stereotype was not limited just to Moon’s era. Even recent studies have found that certain words and abilities are more likely to be associated with a player based on the color of their skin. Television networks have been found to highlight intellect-related abilities for white players and physical abilities for Black players.

Some may argue that the media and its racial biases don’t impact coaching decisions in the league, but what about NFL draft experts? Some scouting publications, too, are complicit in perpetuating the same biases and their effect on the game is likely more obvious in determining who gets drafted into the league and who is forced to switch from playing quarterback to another position.

Even if drafting, coaching and playing decisions were independent of the opinions put forth by so-called sports experts and their biased language, there is still a harmful culture that is maintained and perpetuated by seemingly subtle stereotypes.

Just two years ago a superintendent openly commented following a loss by the Houston Texans, writing “When you need precision decision making you can’t count on a black quarterback.”

He’s not alone. He, like many others, seems to believe in a racial hierarchy constructed in part because of the language we have been using — perhaps without the realization of its underlying connotations, origins and effects.

Discussion of the prevalence of racial biases in sports today isn’t to say that there haven’t been improvements. As the NFL and the media become more aware of the flaws in their practices, our society progresses forward.

Although Briscoe’s starts were not catalytic, a slow reaction has been brewing. The Undefeated claimed 2019 was the “Year of the Black QB” with Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson leading their teams and making headlines on a weekly basis. With every passing year, we must remain vigilant in realizing reasonable parity still has not and cannot be achieved until we increase our awareness of our overt and implicit biases.

Surina Khurana covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @surina_k.