Twice as good, half as far: The case of Justin Fields, Black quarterbacks in NFL draft

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There is a huge problem in sports media (yes, that includes me), and it’s almost impossible to combat. Black athletes, especially quarterbacks, are viewed on a completely different axis from their white counterparts. There’s no shortage of examples, but it’s a recurring issue every year — especially when it comes to Black quarterbacks in the NFL draft.

Take Lamar Jackson, for example. He entered the NFL after three stunningly prolific years as the quarterback for the Louisville Cardinals. A dynamic athlete with a quick release, Jackson was asked by the Los Angeles Chargers to switch to wide receiver — a position he never played in college. NFL “analysts” and media talking heads quickly swarmed over this revelation and gawked at the possibilities of an athlete such as Jackson on the perimeter. Jackson forced the conversation’s death in 2019 when the second-year NFL quarterback became the youngest MVP of the league and the second-ever unanimous MVP of the league (after only Tom Brady in 2010). Jackson was the fifth quarterback drafted that year.

“But the draft is a crapshoot anyway,” some might argue. “It is impossible to tell who will end up performing at the professional level.” That sentiment is common, but which players get the benefit of the doubt in evaluations?

Sit with that. In a league with a majority Black demographic, most of the decision-makers — head coaches, general managers and owners — are white men. Draft media coverage is dominated by non-Black analysts. It’s easy to see where, and toward whom, the coverage might lean in favor of.

Think of how Cam Newton was portrayed by the media, especially after his “failure” in Super Bowl 50. Think about the treatment of Michael Vick versus Ben Roethlisberger in both of their respective controversies. Who gets a chance at redemption? Who gets vilified?

“Great athletes who can also throw the ball” seems to be the sticking point when it comes to the discussion of Black quarterbacks. There seems to be a lack of recognition for their abilities as quarterbacks and more emphasis on their athletic ability. This is not merely coincidental.

That ingrained bias leads us to the present, April 2021, when the fight rages on for a level playing field. By every metric, Justin Fields should be in the discussion for being the best quarterback in the 2021 NFL draft. Ranked just behind Trevor Lawrence, Fields had been the consensus No. 2 quarterback of the 2021 draft class for months. But suddenly, he has become a topic of heated debate. The rise of quarterbacks such as Zach Wilson and Mac Jones over the last few months has curiously taken him out of the limelight.

Fields has done very little, if anything at all, to cause his draft stock to fall. Incorrect assumptions based on his ability (or supposed lack thereof) to make reads on a football field have struck a chord nationally. It’s a new spin on an old thought: that Black quarterbacks are somehow less intelligent and have lower “football IQ” or “vision” than their white counterparts. Even his work ethic was called into question by former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky (the same man who managed to run out of the back of his own endzone).

“I have heard that he is a last-guy-in, first-guy-out type of quarterback. Like, not the maniacal work ethic,” Orlovsky said. “I think that there’s a desire to be a big-time athlete from what is expressed to me, but where is his desire to be a great quarterback?”

Where is his desire to be a great quarterback. Never mind the fact that in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Fields was campaigning and petitioning the Big Ten to allow a football season. Never mind the fact that he has been one of the best at his position for likely his entire career. “Athlete,” not quarterback. Sound familiar?

Orlovsky has since recanted and apologized, but in the age of echo chambers and social media, the apology is never as loud as the disrespect. It is curious though, that when Lawrence and those close to him came out and said he would be comfortable walking away from football at any time and that he does not feel the need to win a Super Bowl at any cost, there was very little national recognition. Once again: Who is getting the benefit of the doubt here, and why? Quincy Avery, a nationally recognized and revered quarterback coach, put it best.

“It’s systemic: (Black quarterbacks) are afforded opportunities, but they aren’t allowed to be average because they don’t have enough decision-makers who look like them,” Avery said.

Jones has looked average before, as has Wilson. But, even when he went head-to-head with Lawrence, Fields has put himself above and beyond any reasonable expectation that weighed on him.

Yet Fields continues to fall on draft boards everywhere. As with all Black quarterbacks, he has had to be twice as good to get half as far. But just because that is the current condition does not mean it is one to be accepted. It must be challenged and threatened at every juncture. Being Black and a quarterback should not have negative implications for your depiction in the media and your job opportunities at the professional level. There is no place for racism or bias, implicit or explicit, in the world — and just because it’s football doesn’t mean there should be an avenue for it to slide through.

So level the playing field, and see who comes out on top. I know who I would want leading my franchise, and it is clear to me who really wants it more. Then again, the draft’s a crapshoot, right?

Jesse Stewart covers football. Contact him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jessedstew.