By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
There is a good reason for the euphoria legions of Blacks are expressing about the historic first of two African-American quarterbacks, Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts, facing off in this year’s Super Bowl. It’s been a long, agonizing, painful road for Black quarterbacks and the NFL to reach this historic point.
I still remember as if it were yesterday that warm, fall evening at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1973. The Los Angeles Rams quarterback James “Shack” Harris, an African American, got the start in a pre-season game against the then-San Diego Chargers.
It seemed nearly all of Black Los Angeles packed the Coliseum that night to see Shack’s performance. When he threw a touchdown pass, the Black fans exploded into near delirium. It was more than a pass, more than football, more even than a game to them. They saw this as striking a blow against the Jim Crow racism that for decades blighted one particular football position, the quarterback.
For one memorable night, Harris seemed to refute something I often heard my uncle, a consummate NFL junky, say about the long-standing NFL ban of Blacks as quarterbacks: “They’d rather lose with a lousy quarterback than win with a good, Black quarterback.”
Though Harris became the first Black quarterback to make the Pro Bowl in 1974 it was still a rocky road ahead for Black quarterbacks.
The formal ban of Blacks in the NFL was firmly in place from 1934 to 1946. After the ban was lifted, an informal ban remained rigidly in place against Blacks at quarterback.
It took another four years before George Taliaferro became the first Black player to start for an NFL team at quarterback in 1950. During the next two decades, the number of Blacks that played the position sparingly could be counted on one hand.
The NFL template to enforce the color bar at quarterback went like this: No matter how talented a Black college quarterback was during those years, no NFL team would draft him to play quarterback.
If a team did draft him he would get in the game only if there was an injury to the starting white quarterback, and the Black quarterback was the last resort. Then he would throw almost no passes.
More commonly, when drafted he would immediately be switched to another position, usually defensive back or wide receiver.
Warren Moon, after several record-breaking seasons in the Canadian Football League in the late 1970s and early 1980s, made the major breakthrough for Black quarterbacks in the NFL when the Houston Oilers signed him in 1984.
Years later, Lamar Jackson put his foot down and told the NFL he would play no other position than quarterback. Jackson refused to run sprints at the NFL combine. There was the very real suspicion that if he excelled it would be the excuse to try to shift him to running back.
This pointed to the age-old, standard NFL rationale for regarding the quarterback position as for whites only. Blacks are great runners. They are great athletes. They are raw physical talents.
But as for quarterbacking, forget it — that’s a cerebral, thinking man’s, leadership position. It’s by far the most high-profile position on an NFL team.
Doug Williams’ record-breaking Super Bowl performance in 1987 is held up as the benchmark for the reversal of fortune for Black quarterbacks in the NFL. Since 1990 there have been at least five Black quarterbacks in the NFL every season.
Yet, despite the nearly dozen relatively successful Black quarterbacks in the NFL, led by Jackson, Hurts and Mahomes, the old notions die hard. In many circles, Black quarterbacks are still seen as runners first, “dual threat” in the popular parlance, or branded as “great athletes,” not “great quarterbacks.”
Hurts, as recently as 2020, was still asked if he would switch positions. His answer was a firm “no.”
Even though Mahomes is now widely perceived and touted as the face of the NFL, he, too, has his story about the doubters. He protested that all anyone seemed to want to talk about was his great throwing arm rather than his ability to make critical decisions on plays and direct the team.
He reminded folks of Jackson’s initial plight, saying, “He threw for over 30 touchdowns, but everybody just wanted to talk about the runs.”
A 2015 study in the Journal of Sports Economics pointed to one other lingering dilemma for Black quarterbacks — the margin of failure for them is paper thin. The study found that Black quarterbacks in the NFL were far more likely to be benched for any real or perceived failure on the field than white quarterbacks.
Much is being made about the historic first of a Super Bowl with two Black quarterbacks facing off. This, in itself, is the greatest cautionary reminder about the NFL’s sordid past treatment of Black quarterbacks.
Fortunately, at least for this game anyway, that past has seemingly changed.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network Saturdays at 9 a.m.