No matter who wins, the first Super Bowl with 2 Black quarterbacks will make history
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
For the first time, the Super Bowl will feature two Black starting quarterbacks. It's the third appearance for Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs, a first for Jalen Hurts of the Eagles. And while seeing at least one Black quarterback in the Super Bowl has become a little more frequent in the last decade or so, it took decades of overcoming racist tropes for Black men to be deemed worthy to lead an NFL team. Jason Reid writes all about this in his book "Rise Of The Black Quarterback: What It Means For America." Jason, so let's just start with the word quarterback. I mean, what kind of things do people think of or feel when they imagine what a quarterback is, what that word means?
JASON REID: Well, you know, quarterback is a uniquely American leadership position. But if you take it away from the football field, when we say quarterback, if you are the quarterback of a company's project, a project that the company needs, well, the quarterback is the one who's supposed to lead everybody and make the project successful. If you're going in for a medical procedure and, you know, it's dicey and there are a lot of doctors involved and, you know, your health is riding on the line, the lead doctor is the quarterback. When we think of quarterback in American culture, we think of the best. We think of the brightest. We think of the person around whom everyone else rallies.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah - charismatic, athletic, smart, hotshot, like big man on campus - right? - multitasker. So let me ask you this then, Jason - what were some of the ways Black quarterbacks were described in the pre-Super Bowl era? Because, you know, a lot of times, those words that I just mentioned weren't describing Black quarterbacks.
REID: No, not at all. And, you know, really, before the Super Bowl era, there were a few Black quarterbacks in the NFL, but it really wasn't until the late 1960s and 1970s where you actually saw, you know, Black quarterbacks who were actually getting an opportunity to really play. And why is that? Well, in the NFL, Black quarterbacks in college were just, as a rule, converted to other positions - wide receiver, defensive back, predominantly. And that was because the people who control the NFL - the white men who were the owners and the executives and the coaches - they felt Black men were inherently inferior, that Black college quarterbacks, in their minds, could not lead white players in the NFL, and they just weren't smart enough.
MARTÍNEZ: At the time, the rosters were majority white. I mean, right now it's different. Right now 80% of NFL rosters are Black. But back then, I think - I mean, that was something that they really thought about, I mean, that this Black man could not be entrusted to lead white men on the field of battle.
REID: Yeah. And, you know, I'll take it even a step further. Not just could they not be entrusted, but that white men would not follow Black men. So it wasn't even something that was discussed; it was just something that was understood.
MARTÍNEZ: When was it that the NFL finally considered the possibility that Black men could indeed play quarterback?
REID: Well, a lot of people like to point to Doug Williams' incredible performance in the Super Bowl for the then-Washington Redskins over the Denver Broncos back in 1988. And that was the first time where people who were in positions of power in the NFL actually thought, well, wait a minute. This guy just had this incredible performance. He's a Black quarterback. He was the MVP of the game, first Black quarterback to start in a Super Bowl and win the game's MVP award. But other people thought, well, this is maybe just a one-off. Well, then Warren Moon comes down from Canada - Warren Moon, who was not drafted in 1978 despite being a Pac-8 conference co-player of the year, led Washington to a Rose Bowl victory, doesn't get drafted, goes to Canada, has a great career. He comes down, you know, in the late 1980s, early 1990s and starts having, you know, big numbers. And Randall Cunningham - the, quote-unquote, "ultimate weapon" - he starts out in Philadelphia. He's a second-round draft pick, you know, early 1990s. And he takes off.
So then you start to see the people who control the league think, well, wait a minute. Doug Williams did this in the Super Bowl. Warren Moon has been a Pro Bowler, successful. Randall Cunningham - we can't stop this guy. And then in 1999, for the first time, three Black quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the NFL draft - Donovan McNabb, Dante Culpepper and Akili Smith. Then in 2001, Michael Vick is the first overall pick in the draft, first Black quarterback to be taken there. And then by that point, you start to see more of acknowledgement that, look; these guys are here, and they can play, and if they can help us win, we need to let them do that.
MARTÍNEZ: Ten years ago in New Orleans, in the Super Bowl, Colin Kaepernick, when he was quarterbacking the 49ers, he rallied his team. They were down 22 points in the third quarter to the Baltimore Ravens. That was Super Bowl XLVII. They wound up losing, fell short by only three points. In 2016, Kaepernick started protesting the national anthem to bring attention to police brutality toward Black people in the U.S. That pretty much ended his playing career. Do you think that if somehow Colin Kaepernick were a Super Bowl champion, if he had that on his resume, that the way his protest was processed and reacted to would have been different somehow?
REID: Yeah, I do because, you know, the test for me is if Colin Kaepernick had been Patrick Mahomes, I still believe he would be in the NFL. So, you know, when we talk about how quarterbacks are looked at, what I try to tell people is there has never been a better time in the NFL for Black men who aspire to play quarterback. These guys are the faces of franchises. They have massive endorsement deals. They have the biggest contracts. But progress is not perfection. And when you look at the standard, how people are perceived, Patrick Mahomes addressed this in the preseason this year when he said that, you know, some of the criticism of me and Lamar is different - Lamar Jackson - is different than some of the criticism of people who don't look like us. So, yeah, I definitely think that there is a different way perceptions are processed.
MARTÍNEZ: And on the word progress, Doug Williams called this year's Super Bowl - between Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts - he called it progress. And I think about the title of your book, Jason, "The Rise Of The Black Quarterback: What it Means For America." So then when we all tune in to watch with millions of others that Sunday, when it's the Chiefs taking on the Eagles, and we see two Black men leading their NFL teams in the Super Bowl, what will it mean for America?
REID: Well, what it means is, is that you now are at a point where Black men in the NFL - but also in a much bigger context - are reaching levels that they were denied even competing for previously. And they're reaching there just because of the opportunity that they finally got to show, hey, I can do this on my merit. I have the ability. I have the intellect. I have the leadership skills. You know, you look at America. Barack Obama was the first Black president in the United States, but there were other Black men before Barack Obama who had the ability to succeed at the highest levels possible, but they were denied the opportunity to compete. So when you see those two Black quarterbacks on the field, what you have to realize is, look; this could have happened 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago, but it didn't because they didn't have the opportunity. So opportunity in America - when anyone in America gets an opportunity, anyone among us can rise up and succeed.
MARTÍNEZ: Jason Reid is a senior writer for Andscape. His latest book is "Rise Of The Black Quarterback: What It Means For America." Jason, thanks a lot.
REID: Thank you.
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