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Jason Reid's 'Rise of the Black Quarterback' Shines a Spotlight on the History Between Race and the NFL's Most Important Position

Quarterback Rankings Week 16: Lamar Jackson

Jason Reid explores the history of Black quarterbacks in the NFL, from Marlin Briscoe to Lamar Jackson.

The NFL has been around for more than 100 years in different forms, but it's only in recent years that teams have widely used Black players at quarterback. 

That's not to say that there weren't talented Black passers. Marlin Briscoe set the Denver Broncos rookie passing touchdown record in 1968 and still holds that record today. But he wasn't allowed to play the position after that initial campaign and had to play out the rest of his nine-year career as a wide receiver.

Much has changed in the five-plus decades since, with numerous Black quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall and signing record-setting deals. But it hasn't been a smooth road to get there. 

This is the history that Jason Reid explores in his book Rise of the Black Quarterback: What It Means for America, which is available nationwide on August 2.

Reid was inspired to write the book after working on a season-long digital series in 2019 for ESPN about this successful class of Black quarterbacks in the NFL. Before joining ESPN and Andscape (formerly known as The Undefeated), Reid developed an interest in Negro League history from his years covering the Los Angeles Dodgers for the Los Angeles Times.

Years of research and 75 interviews later, Reid has written the definitive history of the most marginalized group of players in NFL history and how they reached the pinnacle of sports — even if there remain massive obstacles in their way.

The history of Black quarterbacks in the NFL is not just a story of overcoming racism in the NFL, it's also a story of how America has changes. And sports is but a microcosm of society.

"The NFL's determination to keep the quarterback position lily-white was economically disenfranchising for generations of Black passers, whose professional careers were either adversely affected because they had to change positions or outright ruined because they were incapable of lining up elsewhere and succeeding," Reid writes in the book. "And that should not only anger Black people, but anyone who believes in the so-called American dream and the right of every citizen to pursue it."

Ahead of the book's release, Reid sat down with Athlon Sports to discuss what he learned from his research, how things might continue to change going forward, and much more. 

(Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

Ben Weinrib: Was there anything, when you were researching the book and interviewing people, that you didn’t know before or didn’t know as much about that surprised you?

Jason Reid: There was a ton that I learned. I didn't have an understanding about what the early pioneers really went through. Of course, I understood there was systemic racism and that Black men were not considered to have the intellect, the heart, or the skill level to quarterback a team and to lead white men. In general, I knew all those things. But I didn't really have a grasp of, let's say, Marlin Briscoe the first starting Black quarterback of the modern era when he became an emergency starter for the Denver Broncos in 1968, I didn't know the depth of the racism he faced.

I didn't understand what it was like. I'm much younger than Marlin, who just passed away. I didn't grow up in the 60s. I did not have an understanding of the juxtaposition of the civil rights movement and the fact that Black quarterbacks were, even into the late 60s and 70, not viewed as really viable options for the NFL. In reporting and researching this book, it really just gave me a new understanding of racism in America and systemic oppression and how it relates to sports and what these men had to be willing to endure just to be in a position to have the doors slammed in their face. 

I learned a ton about the NFL, about how it functioned in the 40s and the 50s and the 60s and the 70s, about just the prevailing thought that Black men didn't have the intellect to read defenses and make the right throws. One of the things that really stuck with me in researching this and talking to old-timers was that the prevailing mood of the day in the 50s and the 60s and even into the 70s was that white men would not follow Black men because black men inherently would just not lead us. 

Now, you say something like that now where the country has had its first black president, there are black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, there's currently a black female vice president, people would say, well, that's kind of somewhat hard to grasp that no Black men were capable of leading white men. But was one of my biggest takeaways was that we hear that people in the NFL, the decision makers, the people who hold the marionette strings, did not think Black people had the intellect to play quarterback, but it was far more insidious than that. And I don't mean be hyperbolic in this, but I think insidious is fitting. They just did not think Black men could lead white men because white men just inherently look at Black men as being inferior, and the quarterback acquisition first and foremost is about leadership. 

Along those lines, you spend a chapter in the book on Lamar Jackson. Heading into the draft, he was a Heisman winner, he broke all kinds of records in college, and yet some people still thought he should be a wide receiver or a running back. Obviously things have improved since the days of Marlin Briscoe, but how much? 

In fairness to the people in the NFL, I'll say this: I've had NFL player personnel people and NFL coaches tell me, gone are the days when you'll be in a draft room and the people who actually make picks and the control that part of the process will say, "We're not going to take so-and-so because he's Black." I mean, that's no longer said. It's commonplace to see Black quarterbacks taken in the first round of the draft now. It's not shocking if a Black quarterback is taken first overall; Kyler Murray was taken first overall a few years back, and he's been a Pro Bowl. So we're no longer at a stage where Black men who play the quarterback position are just ruled out because of race. So that is progress, and there's no doubt about that.

But what we still do have is there is there are still people who will look at a Black man who plays quarterback and will find areas like with Lamar Jackson, where, OK, he doesn't fit the prototype mold of what the quarterback is supposed to be. You talk to NFL people, they'll tell you John Elway is the greatest quarterback prospect in the history of the game. Tom Brady is the most successful quarterback. You can't argue that with all the Super Bowl rings. And, you know, Lamar Jackson does not have a similar game to John Elway. Yes, Elway also was nimble and got out of problems with his feet. But there has never been a more athletic quarterback in terms of being able to impact the running game than Lamar Jackson, even more than Michael Vick. As great as Michael Vick was, Lamar Jackson is better in terms of that part of it. 

So when Lamar Jackson was coming out of Louisville — as you mentioned, he's a Heisman Trophy winner with great success at Louisville — some very successful, accomplished NFL player personnel people, including the great Bill Polian, who deserves all the accolades he has received for what he accomplished with the Bills and then with the Indianapolis Colts, was one of the people banging that drum that, "Hey, this guy's a wide receiver. He doesn't have the accuracy of some of the other quarterbacks in the draft that year. He would be better served playing wide receiver." 

Now, Bill Polian later came out and acknowledged that he was wrong. Bill Polian didn't see the future the way John Harbaugh, the Baltimore Ravens coach head coach, saw the future, the way Ozzie Newsome, the Baltimore Ravens' former general manager, saw the future. Now, it took incredible buy-in from the Ravens to revamp what they were doing offensively to build around Lamar Jackson's skill set. A lot of teams won't do that. A lot of teams won't do that for a white quarterback. But the Ravens did see the potential in Lamar Jackson, whereas a lot of other people didn't. And so you think about the way it used to be, it was blanketed across the board in the 60s and basically even into the early 70, well, no, he's Black. He's getting moved to cornerback, he's getting moved to wide receiver, because Black men just don't play quarterback in the NFL. That's gone. 

But with Lamar Jackson, and this is one of the reasons why this is one of my favorite chapters in the book, is that we see that, yes, there's progress. But there are still moments where these old anachronistic thoughts start popping back into people's heads, especially if they can't see, OK, how can we maximize what this unique player does? And to the Ravens credit, they did see that.

One story that always stuck out to me was when the Panthers drafted Cam Newton, owner Jerry Richardson publicly said, "I want to make sure you don't get piercings. I want to make sure you don't get tattoos." What do you think that says about expectations surrounding Black quarterbacks?

Well I'll take it a step further. What we're talking about is America writ large about the Black man. What Jerry Richardson was saying is, "You're going be the face of our franchise, and I don't want our franchise being represented by someone who is that immersed in that aspect of Black culture." You know, you can talk about the hip hop culture. You can talk about the the fashion style and the clothes that young people wear, body art, those types of things. And Jerry Richardson was saying, "I don't want to be associated with that. I don't want my franchise being associated with that. And if you're going be the face of my team, that's not the thing I want."

We can look at that and just say it's racist on its face. But the reality of it is, you're not going see African Americans in corporate America who have attained a level of success in terms of the C-Suites and being directors and vice president (looking like that). The reality of it is that's just where things still are.

There are many NBA players who are highly successful off of the court. I think of Kevin Durant. I think of LeBron James. I know Kevin Durant has body art, but he uses the term "business tattoos" where his tattoos are covered, so you don't see them. Jerry Richardson was making that clear. 

Now here's the thing: Cam Newton also wanted to be a commercial success. He wanted to be a success off the field with marketing and endorsement opportunities, and there is that, for lack of a better way to put it, "clean cut image," and Cam Newton wanted to maximize that as well. You look at the top African American quarterbacks today, Patrick Mahomes, I believe Dak Prescott has tattoos, but there is a certain image that you want your quarterback to have. It's one thing if you're a cornerback, and it's one thing if you're a wide receiver, but a franchise quarterback is the face of the team. He is the face of the franchise. He's the guy in the community. And so, you know, that that's going to come with the territory. I mean, Jerry Richardson articulated it publicly, but I don't know of any owner who would disagree with him on that and privately would make that clear.

My bigger thing around Cam Newton was, coming out of Auburn, he was this athletic freak, something the NFL had never seen the likes of before in terms of the things he could do at his size. And people were actually debating whether he was better than Blaine Gabbert. I remember Warren Moon was advising Cam and his dad at that time, and we had a conversation, like, are people serious? No offense to Blaine, but there is no discussion. That's where you wonder, do these outdated thoughts about race come into play?

You mentioned in the book that Warren Moon is the only Black quarterback in the Hall of Fame. Fritz Pollard is in but isn't listed as a quarterback. In recent years, baseball has made more of an effort to honor a lot of the top Negro League players, so I'm curious what your thoughts are on just the lack of Black quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame? 

The issue is when you look at the career numbers, Randall Cunningham is someone you could talk about. The knock people use against him and Donovan McNabb is that they never won Super Bowls. They didn't have a ton of playoff playoff success relative to what the voters think Hall of Fame quarterbacks should have. That's the issue with those guys.

Look, had Black men been permitted to play the quarterback position based on merit back in the 60s and the 70s, I would venture to guess that there would be several Black quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame. But when you have a whole group that was denied playing the position just based on race, not ability or intellect, well, yeah, you're not going have as many in the Hall of Fame. 

You really have to start looking at the late the mid-to-late 80s to really talk about Black quarterbacks having a shot in the NFL. I'm not talking about spot starters. When Warren Moon came from Canada and joined Houston, Randall Cunningham gets in with the Eagles, even Doug Williams winning that Super Bowl. After Doug Williams' performance in that Super Bowl where he was the MVP and Washington lit up the Denver Broncos, it wasn't like there was a flood of Black starting quarterback after that. It was still a gradual process. 

On that subject, what do you think NFL history is missing with so many Black quarterbacks forced to switch positions or just not allowed to play?

If Warren Moon had been allowed to play the position when he left the University of Washington, if he'd been drafted and been allowed to compete and played or not played based on merit, he might own every passing record there is right now in the NFL. Had other Black quarterbacks been allowed to compete, I think what we're missing is, to your point, more Black quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame.

When you don't get to the starting line until so much later than other people, it just goes to figure that your accomplishment, your body of work, collectively, isn't going be as large as the people who are running the race way before you. So what the NFL has missed and is missing is the accomplishments that Black men could have had at that position because they weren't even allowed to step up to the starting line. 

One thing I think about is the NFL obviously is the biggest sport in America now, but so many great players were held out of the league for so long. And it makes me wonder, would the NFL have been a much bigger sport earlier had all the best football players been allowed to play in the 50s, 60s, 70s? Did the owners, in their hatred and selfishness, hold back the sport?

You also have to look at where America was at the time as well, though. I buy the premise that racism does hurt all of us because when you have a diverse either workforce or group of people rolling in the same direction to try to achieve something, you're only benefited from having different ideas and different approaches.

Now in the NFL, for many years, there was a 12-year ban on Black players. The league definitely was hurt by keeping out Black men who could have attracted more fans to the game. When you talk about racism, that's what racism does. Racism hurts the collective group, even if the people who are in a prominent position in the collective group, i.e. white people, don't see it. That's the thing about racism: they'd rather not see it. They'd rather just keep that group out. 

You started the book by talking about how so many of today's top quarterbacks are Black. Do you think it's that ownership is less prejudiced or is the talent just too hard to ignore at this point? What do you think has allowed the change in racial makeup of quarterbacks in the NFL?

Opportunity based on self-interest. When it got to a point where the NFL money continued to get bigger and bigger, these coaches are not going keep their jobs unless they win. And it got to a point, moving in mid-to-late 80 on, that, if you were a head coach, and if you are a general manager, you can't afford to, as a rule, exclude anyone simply because of their race, if they potentially can help you keep your job. It's all motivated by self-interest.

If these owners and general managers and coaches felt like, "I just don't want to take these Black guys to play quarterback. I'm going to stick with this mediocre white guy," if they felt that they could attain a level of success that they wanted, then you wouldn't see what you see now. You see what you see now is because the money is just so mind-boggling, and the pressure to win is so intense. 

They can't just say, "Well, no, I prefer to have a white guy there." You can't do it now because you've got to win. The fans demand it. They pay these exorbitant ticket prices. The TV partners demand it. The corporate partners demand it. This NFL machine, this multibillion-dollar industry, it's all predicated on these teams winning and trying to win.

If your fan base doesn't believe you're trying to win, go look and see what's going on in Washington, with how fans have flocked from that team. Why? Because they haven't been successful. They've also had a myriad problems off the field, but at its core, if they were winning, fans would still be there. Yeah, the owner is getting his TV money, but you're not getting those butts and seats. You're not getting the concessions and the parking. So it was all self-interest. 

Also, the mood in the country began to change, too. No one could argue credibly that racism still doesn't exist in America. That would be insane. But as it got into the 80s and into the 90s, you saw that things were not as overtly racist in the country as they were in the era of Jim Crow. And with the pressure to win internally in the league, the money that was involved, you can't ignore someone at the most important position in sports who can help you in simply because of his skin color.

Warren Moon said this to me: it was just about opportunity. Once we started getting opportunities, we show what we show, what we could do. 

Washington recently made Jason Wright the first Black man to be a team president. How much more representation do you think we'll see in football without changes at the top?

In terms of the quarterback position, we're going to continue to see more and more African American passers because there's going be a continuing flow of talent from the college ranks. Bryce Young, the young man at Alabama, will be in NFL next year, and Ohio State's C.J. Stroud will be drafted high too.

So in terms of the quarterback position, I think we're going to see more diverse representation, more Black men at that position in the NFL, because there's just a pipeline coming from college. We are now at a stage where the Black quarterback is not an oddity and not something that you don't expect to see anymore. That's just not the case anymore.

Now in terms of representation in management, I don't think we're going see changes made throughout the NFL in terms of more diverse representation at the highest rungs of football operations, general manager, head coaches, those types of things, until owners make it a priority.

The league can argue that it has all these programs and is trying to do this and that. But we're at a point where the league is more than 100 years old, and it's still not getting the job done to the level that it says it wants to get the job done, that commissioner Roger Goodell has said it wants to get the job done, with diversity in the workplace in terms of those higher upper echelon positions, head coach, offensive coordinators, general manager, assistant general manager, those types of things. 

How do you think that this latest generation of Black quarterbacks and Black quarterbacks generally have changed the way quarterbacks are evaluated and teams scout?

It's had an enormous effect, to me, from talking to player personnel people. When the Baltimore Ravens revamped their whole offense and built it around Lamar Jackson's specific skillset, I remember Doug Williams said, "Jason, white or Black, most teams don't do that. You get a guy. Yeah, you might tweak things, but you're going to want that guy to fit what you want to do." The Ravens said, "No, we're going to tear this whole thing down and we're going to accentuate everything this guy does well." And it led to him becoming an MVP, and they've had a lot of success with him.

What it does is the NFL is a copycat league. When the other NFL owners and executives see what the Ravens did, it makes them have to now think, "We're evaluating, what are we doing with this guy? Could we see him as being someone who, if we make substantive changes in what we're doing, could he have that type of success like what Lamar Jackson had?"

Patrick Mahomes was the 10th overall pick in the draft, and one of the knocks against Mahomes was, "Well, you know, he throws from all these different arm angles, and he plays a Texas Tech, where they've got that gimmicky Air Raid offense, and none of those raid guys have been successful in the NFL. He's got arm talent, but I don't know."

Now I'm not saying it factored in his father is Black, but what I am saying is that teams that missed on him now have to allow for the changing landscape. They have to reconsider the traditional outlook that they had or what they want to see in the perfect arm angle in every pass or what they want see in terms of the drop-back game. And then when you factor in a player's ability to run and what that can do, teams now are thinking more outside the box than they ever have because the box has been broken. The box has been blown up, and you can't now just be so rigid.

Another example is Kyler Murray. Murray is No. 1 overall picking the 2019 draft. There is no way that this 5'9" Black quarterback ever would've been taken No. 1 in the 90s and the 80s. What they would say is, shoot, he's 5'8.5", 5'9". He's running around everywhere. But teams have had to change their outlook. Why? Because the pressure to win on these general managers and coaches is enormous. It's palpable. These guys get paid huge salaries. If you become an NFL general manager, an NFL head coach, you're making huge money by any known standard. But if you don't win, that owner is going to get you out. So you can't be so rigid anymore because you have to look at every conceivable way to win.

I've had NFL executive say to me, "We looked at what the Ravens did with Lamar, and it changed the industry." You may not want to take a guy like Lamar because you may not think that you can do the same thing, but now you at least think about it, whereas before you didn't. it. 

From your research, are any quarterbacks in the past who stuck out to you that you wish could have gotten a chance to be a full-time starter or think would've made a big impact, had they been allowed to play quarterback or play in the NFL period? 

The one that stands out to me is Marlin Briscoe. That might sound strange because he did play quarterback for a year and he had some success. But Marlin's career as a quarterback was taken away from him for no other reason than he was Black. 

He still has a Denver Broncos' rookie record for touchdowns. I believe he finished his second in the AFL Rookie of the Year voting that year. He goes home to Omaha to work on finishing his degree, and he finds out they're having quarterback meetings without him. 

A fan base would just torch ownership and management if you had a quarterback who electrifies a team, shows that they might have a chance with this guy, and then the job is just taken from them for no other reason is Black. Today, you couldn't get away with that. The media would be all over the team. The fan base would be all over the team. You couldn't do that. It would be like if the Arizona Cardinals, after Kyler Murray was AP Offensive Rookie of the Year said, "We're going go in another direction." You just couldn't do it.

Marlin Briscoe went on to have a successful NFL career as a wide receiver, but he only was allowed to play quarterback one year, and he proved he could do it. He proved he could succeed, and it was taken away from him for no other reason than he was Black. I think if he would've had that opportunity, man, we could have really seen something special for a long period of time.