The NFL’s test on Black quarterbacks

Pro football has become both a measure of racial progress and a window into what still needs to be done.

A protester wears a t-shirt with a picture of Colin Kaepernick during a June 11 protest against police brutality in Inglewood, Calif.

The National Football League has its hands full right now. It’s trying to construct a fall season as the United States attempts to tackle a pandemic to the ground. Sports fans would love the return of pro football, a symbol of normal American life. Yet a second issue also consumes the world of sports: racial inequity.

The NFL can argue it provides plenty of opportunity for Black players, who make up more than two-thirds of teams. But that diversity doesn’t extend to management. Only two of the 32 teams are owned by nonwhites. And only three of the 32 head coaches are Black.

Over the history of the league (Black players were first allowed in the NFL in 1946) the lack of Black people in leadership positions has extended onto the field, where quarterbacks, the “coaches on the field,” have been overwhelmingly white. In the 2019 season only 12 Black quarterbacks played in NFL games.

A few of those Black quarterbacks who did play excelled at the position: Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens was named the league’s Most Valuable Player, Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals took home the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, and Patrick Mahomes guided his Kansas City Chiefs to a Super Bowl championship. (Mr. Mahomes’ father is Black, his mother white.) Some called 2019 “the year of the Black quarterback.”

But one year doesn’t show that the issue is settled. Cam Newton won a national championship and Heisman Trophy in 2010 as a college quarterback. He was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 2015, only the second Black quarterback to ever earn that honor. Yet when the Carolina Panthers cut him after the 2019 season, months drifted by without any NFL team trying to hire him.

True, his last couple of seasons had been virtual washouts due to injuries. But he has appeared to be fit again, and his athletic ability and record of success on the field seemed to demand interest.

Recently the New England Patriots finally gave him a “show me,” one-year contract, worth about $7.5 million if he achieves various incentives. That’s a fraction of the $50 million over two years that Tom Brady, who just departed the Patriots, will receive from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Too much shouldn’t be made of the single Newton contract. Time will tell when the contracts of lesser quarterbacks who are white come up for renewal. Maybe the market has changed.

Meanwhile former starting NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was widely criticized for taking a knee during the national anthem, first at a preseason game in 2016 and then later, remains unemployed by any NFL team. While many saw his protest as unpatriotic, Mr. Kaepernick, who is Black, insisted it was only meant as a gesture for racial justice.

Since the George Floyd killing in late May, citizens of all backgrounds, including some police officers, have taken a knee to end racial injustice. Mr. Kaepernick’s reentry into the NFL would show that the league now knows how to better handle dissent over race. It begins with tackling racial inequities within the sport, starting at the top. 

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