One of the truest comments I’ve read about race in America came from Chris Rock. It provides a framework for understanding Sunday’s historic Super Bowl matchup between two starting Black quarterbacks.
“To say that Black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before,” Rock said in 2014. “So to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first Black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not Black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been Black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.”
When Major League Baseball added the Negro Leagues to its record books in 2020, it was acknowledging that it wasn’t talent or skill that kept Black men out. It was racism.
LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.
Similarly, it’s not that Black men have finally proven themselves capable of playing quarterback. It’s that the NFL has begun to correct a history of discrimination during which the Canadian Football League effectively served as Black quarterbacks’ Negro Leagues.
What Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts accomplished as Sunday’s starting quarterbacks for Kansas City and Philadelphia is worth celebrating — and not just once. Much as MLB uses Jackie Robinson Day to assess progress on and off the field, the NFL should use this historic Super Bowl as a marker.
Barack Obama was not the first Black man qualified to be president. Jackie Robinson was not the first Black man talented enough to play pro baseball. And the Mahomes-Hurts matchup, as special as the players are, did not come about just because Black men were finally good enough. There was an unofficial infrastructure in place to stop it from happening — and not just through segregation.
The NFL began using the Wonderlic intelligence test in the 1970s — after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Duke Power Co. used the same assessment to prevent Black employees from getting higher-paying jobs. The NFL didn’t stop using the test until last year.
That’s not even a take. That’s just the timeline.
The timeline also shows that Canadian football’s championship game featured two starting Black quarterbacks in 2013 — and in 2001, 1983, 1982 and 1981. Warren Moon is the name most associated with Canada’s star Black quarterbacks, but he wasn’t alone. According to one CFL team, about 75% of the league was starting a Black quarterback before Doug Williams became the first Black quarterback to start and win the Super Bowl in the 1987 season.
Far too often, we talk about “first Black” achievements as if they unfold by happenstance. But segregation is intentional.
Dan Reeves chose to make the Los Angeles Rams the first to reintegrate the NFL in 1946. George Preston Marshall chose to make Washington the last in 1962. Those choices reflected the racial sensibilities of the owners, not the abilities of players.
To reflect on Sunday without considering this history is not to reflect on Sunday at all.
There is a direct correlation between John F. Kennedy sending the National Guard to back up the Black students who integrated the University of Alabama over Gov. George Wallace’s objections in 1963 and Dock Rone’s integration of the university’s football team as a walk-on in 1967. There’s a line linking Walter Lewis, who became the school’s first Black starting quarterback in 1980, to Hurts, Sunday’s starting quarterback for the Eagles, who led Alabama to the championship game as a true freshman in the 2016 season.
That’s not even a take. That’s just the timeline.
My take is this: Embrace it.
If the NFL wants to end racism — as it states in its end zones — it can’t just spray perfume on it and hope no one notices Colin Kaepernick standing in the corner.
There is a reason it took this long for two Black starting quarterbacks to face off in the Super Bowl. If you find that assessment unfair, consider the men who had to go to Canada to play quarterback because NFL owners weren’t comfortable with a Black man being the face of a franchise.
Ever since Joe Namath guaranteed a victory in Super Bowl III, the quarterback position has come to define the American alpha male. In pop culture, it’s the high school quarterback who dates the captain of the cheerleading squad. The winning Super Bowl quarterback is more often than not the one who shouts that the team is going to Disney World.
It’s not just that quarterback is the most important position in football; given the economic muscle and popularity of the NFL, it’s the most important position in American sports.
The faces of the best teams become the faces of the league. And the faces of the NFL become part of American folklore. Think Namath, Montana, Elway, Marino, Favre, Brady, Bradshaw and Aikman, athletes who shaped our culture and epitomized leadership.
So the reason it took 57 Super Bowls for two Black starting quarterbacks to face off has nothing to do with “Black progress” and everything to do with what James Baldwin wrote in “The Fire Next Time”:
“They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.”
The systemic barriers to the quarterback position are being dismantled, but that doesn’t mean the culture that surrounded those barriers has dissipated. There were still NFL teams that had never started a Black quarterback during Obama’s second term.
The stench of yesteryear lingers. You can smell it in the use of Wonderlic scores. You can smell it when ex-players sue the league for racial discrimination. You can smell it whenever someone brings up Black coaches.
Yes, the NFL that forced Moon and other Black quarterbacks to play in Canada no longer exists. Sunday’s historic Super Bowl showdown should mark the end of that ugly chapter. But Sunday didn’t close the book on the NFL’s racist past. That story is still being written.