For decades, NFL teams actively discouraged Black players from playing quarterback, the sport's marquee position. We go through this shameful history — and celebrate this year's historic Super Bowl.
For decades, NFL teams actively discouraged Black players from playing quarterback, the sport’s marquee position.
Today, we go through this shameful history — and celebrate this year’s historic Super Bowl, which features two Black starting quarterbacks for the first time. Read the full transcript here.
Host: Gustavo Arellano
Guest: L.A. Times opinion columnist LZ Granderson
Column: The NFL should stop running from its racial history
No one should forget about Doug Williams
The Big Book Of Black Quarterbacks
GUSTAVO: It's the marquee position in the most-watched sport in the United States: the NFL quarterback.
AP tape: The eight-member class of 2021 was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, former Colts and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning headlined this year's class. Manning held the NFL record for career passing…
GUSTAVO: They become idols for millions of football fans, earn hundreds of millions of dollars, and some even break out of the sports world and seal themselves into popular culture.
Newsclip: Tom Brady trading in the football field for the red carpet Tuesday at the premier of his new movie “80 for Brady.”
GUSTAVO: But up until very, very recently, the vast majority of NFL quarterbacks were white. And Black players who wanted to play quarterback – many are flat-out told to pick another position.
But history's going to be made this Sunday when the Kansas City Chiefs play the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII. The starting quarterbacks for both teams are Black for the first time ever.
AP tape Jalen HURTS: I never always knew how far we'd come. I never knew how far we'd go, but I never said it couldn't be done.
GUSTAVO: It's a cause for celebration, but also begs the question, what took so long?
GUSTAVO: I'm Gustavo Arellano. I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to “The Times: Essential News From the L.A. Times.” It's Monday, February 6th, 2022.
Today, the institutional racism that long held Black quarterbacks from starting in the NFL. And why we're now seeing more of them than ever.
GUSTAVO: LZ Granderson is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and he writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America. LZ, welcome to “The Times.”
LZ: Thank you very much, G. How are you?
GUSTAVO: Good, good. Excited, excited. And I have a gut question for you: Two — or a gut reaction, more like it — two Black starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl for the first time: Patrick Mahomes for the Chiefs. Jalen Hurts or the Eagles. Thoughts?
LZ: About damn time.
GUSTAVO: Everyone says that, and it's true.
LZ: It's true because, think about it: Much of the conversation recently has been about the NFL's poor ability to hire minority coaches, right?
GUSTAVO: Yeah, we had you on last year about it, yeah.
LZ: But the NFL has already featured two Black head coaches face off in the Super Bowl together, and still it took even more years past that to get to this place in a quarterback position. Why is that? Because as much as we talk about how difficult it is for head coaches who are Black to find jobs, for Black men at the quarterback position that history has been so much more significant and so much more evident that the barriers to Black men becoming, starting quarterbacks in the NFL were even higher than the barriers to become head coaches, if you can believe that.
GUSTAVO: Yeah, and just to give people a sense of disparity in this quarterback position, what's the percentage of Black players in the NFL roughly?
LZ: Uh, I think it's like up to 60% now.
GUSTAVO: Yeah, something huge. And how many starting quarterbacks are in the NFL right now, Black quarterbacks?
LZ: Ooh, boy, let's see. Well we’ve got these two. We have Tua, right? We have Russell Wilson. Dak Prescott in Dallas. The Niners had a Black starting quarterback, but he got hurt very early. So the numbers have certainly gotten better than, say, when Donovan McNabb was drafted in ’99, right, and that was, like, still like big news. And he was booed when he was drafted; he went on to have one of the best careers of any of the quarterbacks that was drafted that year. But it hasn't been that long since you were hearing the boos of a Black quarterback to this point now where we are.
GUSTAVO: I got the number actually for the starting Black quarterbacks. So there's 32 NFL teams. Eleven of the teams have a starting Black quarterback.
LZ: There you have it. And I would like to say that has got to be either at or an all-time high.
GUSTAVO: And it's still just a third in a league where 60% to 70% of the players are Black. So flat out, why aren't there more Black quarterbacks?
LZ: Well, there are a variety of reasons.
The first reason we can point to is just the lineage of it all, right? Like you had to work hard to get the league to wrap their heads around the concept of a Black quarterback first of all. So from a historical perspective, if you think about what the quarterback represents, he's an extension of the coach, right? But he’s also is the leader of that franchise, and more often than not the face of that franchise. And so you had decades and decades in which NFL owners, who were all white men, were simply not comfortable having the face of their million-dollar business, and now multimillion-dollar business, be a Black man. And you know they were much more comfortable having a white guy go in and meet with advertisers, having a white guy go out and meet with the community as the face of the franchise. And so it took a while just to get their heads wrapped around the idea of having a Black face be the face of their business.
Then you had to get past the old boys’ network, right? The white man could see integration and change was coming. And so there were these NFL cultural barriers put up to try to, to stymie the growth. So after they, they finally wrapped their head around the idea of how many Black men be a leader. Then you had to look at the opportunities in which they had the chance to prove themselves. And there have been tons of studies that have shown that Black men who are quarterbacks get a significantly less time to prove and learn the game at that level than their white counterparts. And oftentimes, you know, a Black quarterback that may not necessarily succeed with one franchise as a starter doesn't get another opportunity to prove himself to be a starter again, whereas his white counterpart gets multiple opportunities to be a starting quarterback and learn the position over and over again. So there, there are cultural norms and there are also sort of systemic norms within the NFL that made a Black man becoming a starting quarterback for a franchise difficult.
GUSTAVO: And we're talking about, geez, the NFL's almost a century old. Football has been one of America's most popular sports now for about 70 years or so. So what did this historical lack of Black quarterbacks do? In other words, why is it so important to have a Black man as a face of a franchise? I know it's an obvious question, but I know you're going to give me a not-obvious answer.
LZ: Well, I, I mean, look, it's all about equal opportunity, right? And if you know a Black quarterback who succeeds at a high level in college is being asked to change his position as soon as he gets drafted, you know it's not about ability, right? If you look at, like, the career of Warren Moon, and I know Warren Moon is problematic for other reasons. But in terms of his playing on the field, he was by far the best college quarterback when he left Washington. But he had to go to Canada first for multiple seasons before he got a shot in the NFL. And it was, again, it was about wrapping your head around the idea that this Black man could be a leader. And if you look at our country today, you look at the number of CEOs who are Black, you look at the number of college presidents who are Black, you look at senators, you know, who are Black. And you see it isn't just the NFL that has had a problem with Black leadership, it's the country.
LZ: The country just has a problem with Black leadership, and the NFL, to your point the most popular sport today, is an extension of what has been a cultural problem, which is embracing Black leadership.
GUSTAVO: We'll have more after the break.
GUSTAVO: LZ, how did the quarterback position become so white in the first place?
LZ: Uh, racism?
GUSTAVO: Come on, you can give me more than that.
LZ: I, I hate to bring it up, but as soon as you ask yourself, why hasn't Black people gotten to this particular point, given the history of this country, where else do you start? So let's talk about it. So, when football first started, it was integrated, you know, but when it became corporate and then when it became televised, that's when you began to see more and more segregation because it was believed that white America would prefer watching sports if they saw more white people play, particularly at the quarterback position, because it's the most celebrated position in this sport and is argued to be one of the most, if not the most important position in all of sports, right? So this was almost like the president of the United States for this team. And it was assumed from a business perspective that viewers would rather see a white person in that position. So that's when you began to see a rolling back of the desegregation of the sport, because it became corporate. And when it became corporate, it became about what we view would be the most marketable way of pushing our sport out, and that was to make it more and more white. And, coincidentally, if you look back in time, when after the Civil War and during the Reconstruction era, members of Congress was more diverse. And then Jim Crow comes along and makes it whiter.
LZ: So it's not an accident that we've had like this huge gap in terms of what started off as a, more of an integrative sport. And then there was this whitening or whitewashing of the sport, and now the sport is trying to still overcome that Jim Crow era of football.
AP tape reporter (Roger Goodell): NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says he bears responsibility for the league's struggles on improving diversity among high-level executives and coaching staffs. “We just have to do a better job. Uh, we have to look: Is there another thing that we can do to make sure we're attracting that best talent here and making our league inclusive.”
LZ: And now the sport is trying to still to this day, be more reflective of not just the abilities, but actually of the people who are in the stands and of the people who are fans of the sport in general.
GUSTAVO: Yeah, I mean officially this was going from like the ’30s, right up until the …
LZ: The merger …
GUSTAVO: … early 1960s. Yeah, till the merger of two leagues — the NFL and the AFL — and, of course, unofficially still continues in many ways. You mentioned earlier Black quarterbacks being asked to change their positions or sometimes not even being able to play at all. So there's one case study that I want you to focus on just to explain to people just, uh, the, gosh, just the evil, frankly, of denying Black men the ability to play quarterback — an L.A. guy, Kenny Washington. What's his story?
LZ: Well, he is the first Black man to integrate the modern football era. He was a teammate of Jackie Robinson. So even though Jackie Robinson was able to integrate baseball and become an international hero for doing so, Kenny Washington actually integrated the modern football era, uh, before Jackie Robinson, but we don't really know his name quite as well because the NFL honestly didn't want that story to be part of his larger story.
LZ: Baseball for better or for worse, decided to embrace its racist past and say, we made a mistake and Jackie Robinson is our symbol of us correcting that wrong, if you will. There were two Black men who integrated the modern NFL at the same season. Kenny Washington was first, but there was a second player who also integrated. I believe the first one was for the Rams, and then the second one, I believe, was for the Cleveland, Browns.
GUSTAVO: Yeah, Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson, they both played at UCLA. I mean, what kind of quarterback was Kenny Washington?
LZ: He was outstanding. He was outstanding. In fact, the story goes that he could have played any sport that he wanted to, he was that great of an athlete. And while the NFL certainly embraced his talent, finally, they did have problems with him at the quarterback position, because of the things that we talked about earlier, Gustavo, the leadership aspect of it. And you’ve got to remember, if you're talking about integrating a sport, that must mean that there's a lot of racism culturally outside of the sport and within the sport that kept it segregated, that kept those positions away from Black men for a purpose. And so by Kenny Washington being the first, like Jackie Robinson, he was the first one to get the brunt of all of that pushback and all of that anger towards the integration of football. But shout out to the Rams. You know, they're the ones that drafted him. They're the ones that signed him first to a contract in the modern NFL era. And, they obviously were the ones, the organization that was brave enough to really start to correct what has been a decades and decades wrong. And that was the whitewashing of a sport that really started more integrated than what they saw.
GUSTAVO: And the NFL will officially tell you that there was no rule specifically saying that Black players couldn't be quarterbacks, so what were some of the unofficial ways that they kept this from happening?
LZ: Oh, well, first of all I'm not even quite sure if it really was unofficial or not, but the Wonderlic Test, which was designed by a psychologist by the name of Dr. Wonderlic, was created in the 1930s, but then Tom Landry, the legendary coach for the Dallas Cowboys, decided to incorporate it in his analyzing of NFL players in the 1970s. Now, what's interesting about that is that Landry made the choice to incorporate the Wonderlic in his evaluation after the Supreme Court had just made a ruling in 1971, I believe. that the Wonderlic Test was actually racist.
GUSTAVO: Oh, wow.
LZ: There was a lawsuit in which, I forgot the name of the business, but the company, Duke something, was using the Wonderlic Test to justify not giving a Black man a promotion, actually using the Wonderlic to not promote him. And so this case wound up all the way up to the Supreme Court and was found that using the Wonderlic Test in that way was actually discriminatory and violated his constitutional rights.
GUSTAVO: And then the NFL decides to start using this test that then-Supreme Court says is racist to quote-unquote see who's quote-unquote smart. Oh, man.
LZ: Exactly. And the lineage of those decisions are still with us today, because the retired players from the NFL had to actually sue the league because we found out that they were using “race norming,” which is sort of a extension, if you will, of the problems that the Wonderlic Test was presenting. They used race norming to decide what the payout should be for retired players based upon the head injuries that they occurred. And so the barometer was, Black players were automatically considered less intelligent than white players, so the fall-off from, in terms of their cognitive abilities, are automatically started at different levels based upon the assumption that Black people were not as smart as white people.
And again, this is like the history of the attitudes that were shaped going all the way back from, you know, since 1619 in terms of how white America viewed Black Americans.
GUSTAVO: So this Wonderlic happens in the early 1970s. That's when the Super Bowl starts, really started, starts to become popular, and that of course helps the NFL becomes the biggest, most popular league in the United States. And Super Bowls start coming with all the Roman numerals, but the very first starting Black quarterback doesn't play in the Super Bowl until 1988. Who was the person who broke the color barrier?
LZ: It was Doug Williams, and he was drafted by Tampa before that and was successful. But, as I mentioned before, success for Black quarterbacks, at that particular time especially, was viewed differently than success for white quarterbacks. Chances are if a white quarterback had done what Doug Williams was doing in Tampa Bay, he would still have been in Tampa Bay. That wasn't the case. He ended up in Washington as a backup and then was able to come in because of an injury and then put in a brilliant performance and becomes the first Black quarterback to win the Super Bowl. But in between all of that, obviously, was a lot of pushback. And the reason why Doug's win is so momentous is because Washington was actually the last team to integrate. It was as if God wanted to, like, you know, play a practical joke on the people in the D.C., Maryland, Virginia area, by saying not only are you going to have a Black guy starting the Super Bowl, but they're going to win. And this franchise that denied Black men employment based upon color will now have to embrace and celebrate a Black man for getting them to the mountaintop. It was a beautiful moment, a nice full circle moment, but again, one in which you’re, like, going, why did it have to take that much? Why did it have to be that hard? We're talking after “Thriller.” We're still talking about desegregation after “Thriller.” Like, that’s not that long ago, people!
GUSTAVO: And yeah, this is only 35 years ago when Doug Williams won in the Super Bowl, and ever since then, though, there's still only been five Black quarterbacks in the Super Bowl. And one of them you mentioned earlier, former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, and I remember in 2007, I remember him on “Real Sports” on HBO, and Donovan said that flat out: Black quarterbacks in the NFL face more pressure and tougher criticism than white quarterbacks do. Do you think that was fair then, and do you think that still applies today?
LZ: You know, you first have to start with draft night and him being booed. You know, if you go back and you look at the film of what he did for Syracuse, you should have been thrilled to have this, this guy, you know, be your starting quarterback, because he had already proven in college at a very high level he was capable of doing any and everything. But the people in Philly weren't thrilled about him. I guess they wanted another player, certainly they didn't want a Black quarterback, which was not the norm for Philly and not the norm in the NFL. But then once he started to actually prove himself and he earned the starting position and he started to win games and started to show why the team drafted him, you know, Rush Limbaugh, who at the time was one of the commentators for “Monday Night Football,” basically pooh-poohed the entire thing, suggesting that he was only there because he was Black and not because of his skillset and talent, which is absolutely ridiculous because, obviously, considering how hard it was for a Black man to be a starting quarterback in the late 1990s, the idea that he was just put there because he was Black was nonsensical. But, you know, racism in and of itself is nonsensical.
mcnabb tape: Donovan McNabb is, is regressing, he's going backwards and, and my, I'm sorry to say this, I don't think he's been that good from the get-go. I think what we've had here Is a little social concern in the NFL. I think the media has been very desirous that a Black quarterback do well. (Mm-hmm.) We're interested in Black coaches and Black quarterbacks doing well. I think there was a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he really didn't deserve ….
LZ: We're both in media, we're both journalists, and our field needs to take some responsibility for that as well. The way that we talk about players, you know, white players had always been characterized as being gym rats and smart and crafty, and Black players had always been described as naturally gifted. What an athlete. The inherent connotation of that is that the white athlete had to work harder and use their wits, whereas the Black athlete was just naturally gifted and didn't have to work that hard. It didn't require that much intelligence.
Like, we as an industry helped shape and craft that narrative about Black quarterbacks. And so we normalized the racist practice of the NFL by our description of it. So Donovan was 1000% correct that internally, the way that Black quarterbacks were viewed was differently than white quarterbacks. But then externally, the way that they were talked about, was also different and usually had Black quarterbacks at a different level, in terms of what's acceptable play versus their white counterparts.
Today, I think we are significantly better, though Lamar Jackson, who won a Heisman and was an MVP, you know, when he got drafted, he was, I think the last pick in the first round, despite all his collegiate success. And immediately rumors about whether or not he should change positions began circulating again.
Newsclip: So I'm looking at it from that perspective, and I'm asking this question: Can Lamar Jackson do that on the NFL level? Well, if Bill Polian wants to say that he could play wide receiver, that he's creative, wants the football in his, in his hands, that he's a game changer and a playmaker with his feet, why can't he do that from the quarterback position, particularly when he's shown the ability to at least make some of those throws?
LZ: Now, it's funny because, usually now, instead of intelligence being the barrier, it's mobility. So if a quarterback is too mobile, if they're able to run, then somehow, some way they weren't viewed as being a good quarterback. However, when a Steve Young or John Elway was able to scramble or run, they were incredible athletes who could do it all. Again, that's just the way that Black quarterbacks were talked about internally as well as externally.
GUSTAVO: The word I was looking for earlier was “pernicious.” These stereotypes about Black men playing quarterback were just so pernicious. This idea, You're so talented, why should we waste you on being a quarterback? You should be a running back. You should be a wide receiver. Lamar Jackson, one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, yeah, won the Heisman, the top trophy in college football, and then being thought of, no, maybe you should play another position.”
LZ: It reminded me of what happened to so many quarterbacks. One of my favorites growing up was Antwaan Randle El, from the Big 10, and I saw him play live multiple times growing up. And he was an incredible quarterback, incredible quarterback. Gets into the NFL: Nah, we're not giving you the ball.
LZ: And the thing that's so infuriating to me about that isn't simply that they were requiring mobile quarterbacks, particularly coming out of college, to automatically change positions, but that the white quarterbacks oftentimes weren't asked to do the same things despite having similar skill sets. You know, so again, if a white quarterback was mobile in college, it was like, They can do it all, they can scramble, they can throw, they can da, da, da. But a Black quarterback was automatically considered, You should probably play a different position so we can better utilize your speed as opposed to me being a more innovative offensive coordinator and head coach, learning how to utilize all that you have to offer and not just rely upon a playbook that I used to use against a less mobile quarterback.
GUSTAVO: More after the break.
LZ: Easier? I think easier in a sense of changing perceptions, right? Seeing success breeds success, and the NFL, like many other sports, is a copycat league, right? So if you're able to prove that something works one particular way, you can bet your bottom dollar that there are going to be people who are going to try to emulate or replicate what you have accomplished. So certainly seeing Patrick Mahomes, seeing Jalen Hurts face off in the Super Bowl will change the narrative a great deal in terms of what's capable with a Black quarterback in this league. But don't make the assumption that means that this conversation is over, because as I mentioned before, the NFL just decided to stop using race norming as a way to decide which players should be compensated for what. And both Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts was in the league at that time they were doing that. So, sure, when it comes to expectations for the Black quarterback, things have certainly gotten significantly better. The opportunities are obviously there and more plentiful, even though, as you pointed out, only 11 started the season this year. That still is a great deal better than what happened than when Donovan McNabb was in the league like 20 years ago, right? But that shouldn't then allow you to say, Well, the NFL has solved its race problems, because when you look at the leadership, and not just head coaching, but in terms of offensive coordinators, defensive coordinators, when you look at who's in the front office, who are the team presidents, GMs…
GUSTAVO: Owners …
LZ: Owners. All of the positions outside of quarterback now that are in top leadership positions within an organization: Black and brown people are still struggling to reach those heights. And in those positions women are still struggling to reach those heights. So when you look at all the other multibillion-dollar corporations that we have in this country, in some ways the NFL is showing up corporate America, and in other ways it's lagging woefully behind still.
GUSTAVO: Finally to end this, a lightning round: Who's going to win, the Chiefs or the Eagles?
LZ: My head tells me the Eagles, my heart tells me the Chiefs.
GUSTAVO: Who's going to have a better game, Mahomes or Hurts?
LZ: It's going to be Mahomes, because he's required to do more for his team.
GUSTAVO: Is Tom Brady finally, truly retired from the NFL?
LZ: I'm sorry, I don't know who that is.
GUSTAVO: Ha ha. Some guy, I, I think he played quarterback one time.
AP tape: Morning, guys, I'll get to the point right away. I'm retiring, for good.
LZ: Oh, Giselle's ex-husband!
GUSTAVO: Yes, that's the guy.
LZ: Oh, yeah.
GUSTAVO: And most importantly, it's not just the quarterbacks that are bringing Black pride to the Super Bowl. The halftime show artist is none other than Rihanna. What song do you want her to sing?
LZ: Oh, “Rude Boy,” I mean “Rude Boy,” “Rude Boy” is my ish.
GUSTAVO: You'll get maybe 15 seconds of it the way the Super Bowl goes, the halftime show.
LZ: That'll be a quick boy, not a rude one.
GUSTAVO: LZ, as always, thank you so much for this conversation.
LZ: Thank you, fine sir.
GUSTAVO: And that's it for this episode of “The Times: Essential News from the L.A. Times.” Ashlea Brown, David Toledo were the jefes on this episode. It was edited by Kinsee Morlan, and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it. Our show is produced by Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants are Roberto Reyes and Nicholas Perez. Our fellow is Helen Li. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen.
I'm Gustavo Arrellano. We'll be back Wednesday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.