ESPN’s Jason Reid on the Importance of the Black NFL Quarterback—and the ‘Next Frontier’

To grasp the importance of having a surplus of Black starting quarterbacks in the National Football League, says Jason Reid, senior NFL writer for ESPN’s Andscape, look at the word “quarterback.” It’s become a synonym for “leader” in the modern world.

It’s more meaningful when you look at the frustrating history of Blacks at the position in a forever-changing society. Reid’s excellent book, Rise of the Black Quarterback: What It Means for America (out now, Andscape Books, $26.99), which follows his article and one-hour TV special, profiles the excluded pioneers, stereotype-shattering legends, and current superstars.

In a thoughtful 40-minute discussion, Reid discussed the Black quarterback’s image, why NFL teams need to improve at embracing diversity, and “the next frontier” after the Black QB.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

BLACK ENTERPRISE: Why is the Black quarterback important in the societal–sports landscape?

Jason Reid: Quarterback is the most important position in team sport, but in America, the quarterback has come to signify so much more than just a leader. The quarterback is the smartest person in the room. He’s the most capable. He’s the person who everyone else looks to in that moment when everyone needs inspiration. If Black men are excluded from that position, if the belief is that Black men can’t play that position, the belief is reinforced that Black men are inferior.

Once the NFL started to overtake baseball as the main sport in this country and in pop culture, to have Black men excluded from the most important position, it would signify a lot about where Black men stand in society. Why the rise of the Black quarterback is important is because it changes fundamentally the perception that some people would like to cling to—that Black men are less than. That they’re incapable of leading. That they’re incapable of inspiring. That they’re incapable of making things happen that make the collective better. So that’s why it’s important.

How are Black quarterbacks portrayed versus white quarterbacks?

Well, look no further than in the opening week of NFL training camp. The Athletic does an annual ranking of quarterbacks. There was this anonymous quote [from a defensive coordinator] saying that Patrick Mahomes, if you take away his first read of the defense, is reduced to playing street ball, and that’s when they lose.

It was a ludicrous quote. First, “street ball” is coded language for a Black guy. In the history of the NFL, when there was overt racism, that’s something that wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows because that’s just the way white people felt about Black quarterbacks within the context of the NFL. But Patrick Mahomes is one of the most spectacularly successful quarterbacks ever to play in the NFL. At 24, he was the youngest quarterback to have a league MVP award, a Super Bowl trophy, and a Super Bowl MVP award. He’s been to two Super Bowls. He’s never failed to make the AFC championship game. And here is a little secret for you: all defenses try to take away a quarterback’s first read. We know Patrick Mahomes is great. That he had to address this—he didn’t have to, but he felt compelled—there’s still clearly a difference.

How does the NFL get past that so Mahomes doesn’t have to address this nonsense? 

I would say there has never been a better time to be a superstar Black quarterback. There has never been a better time to be a Black quarterback in the NFL. There are more franchise Black quarterbacks than there ever have been before. Five Black quarterbacks are on the top 10 money list in terms of contract earning right now. I would never want to try to portray this as being like the way things were in the past. Now having said that, racism still exists. Until you eradicate racism in the nation, you’re not going to eradicate it in sport. What can be done? I think it’s just the continued evolution to where fewer and fewer people hopefully hold those types of views.

Image provided by Andscape Books

The NFL offseason has featured Brian Flores’ lawsuit and Kyler Murray’s contract. What can the NFL do to stay on top of these incidents?

People within the NFL would argue that, with regards to the Brian Flores’ racial discrimination lawsuit, the league has been working for years with the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an outside group that helps the league with matters of diversity and inclusion. The league would argue, “Hey, we have this Rooney Rule that’s supposed to help with finding qualified candidates and have them be part of the interview process.” But it’s not working very well. You look at the NFL hiring cycles, and there are only three African American head coaches. The league feels it has been doing things to try to get ahead. But the reality of it is these situations keep occurring.

It is very much a team thing. (NFL Commissioner) Roger Goodell would like to see more diversity within the ownership ranks as well. There’s never been a Black team owner. My only thing about that is, just because you have a Black team owner, that doesn’t mean that that person is going to flood the zone with minority hires. If Obama had hired all Black people or all people of color for all the government positions, can you imagine the outrage?

When people talk about diversity, it isn’t something a Black person who might have authority is there to fix. Diversity and inclusion should be on everyone. It should be on white people as well. Don’t look to the Black people who get hired in a supervisory capacity. You shouldn’t want any one of anything. You should want qualified people. And there are qualified people who come in all shades of color.

Do owners have diversity more on their minds?

Within the commissioner’s office, there is diversity. In football operations, at least, there are many African Americans who are at the vice president level. I will give Goodell this: in his office, he walks the talk. But the reality of it is, at the team level, things are not good. It’s not good based upon what the NFL says it wants it to be. I do believe that owners [are paying attention]: A lawsuit also makes you stand up and take notice. They realize that they have to be better as well. The evidence shows that team owners really don’t want to hire Black men to coach their teams. That’s the next frontier.