A week ago, a group of young, black men descended on the city of New York to fulfill their lifelong dreams—being selected in the National Football League draft. This week, pundits discussed the draft ad nauseam. Teams were graded for their picks. Players were analyzed to determine whether they’d fit their new teams’ culture. But not many of the pundits discussed the proverbial elephant in the room when it comes to black athletes—particularly quarterbacks.
I remember it like it was yesterday. Watching Doug Williams hoist the Super Bowl XXII MVP trophy was a pivotal moment in my life. A black man. A quarterback. A leader—one who led his team to victory on one of the biggest stages in American television. He beat a quarterback that most feel is one of the best of all-time, John Elway. And he beat him handily: 42-10. It was a long road for Williams. He entered the league in 1978—the 17th overall pick. As the starting quarterback with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he was paid less than 12 other quarterbacks in the league—backup quarterbacks that is. Not only was he the lowest paid starting quarterback, he wasn’t getting paid as much as over a dozen backup quarterbacks! But on January 31, 1985, he showed the world that he belonged.
Black quarterbacks have spent the past several decades proving they belong. a few years ago showed that one of out every three black quarterbacks drafted are converted to another position. That same study revealed that, since the NFL draft’s inception, approximately 13% of the quarterbacks drafted were black. Of that number, only 2% were drafted in the first round.
There’s been a stigma attached to the black quarterback for a long time. They’re athletic, but don’t seem to be as cerebral as their white counterparts. Or at least that’s the perception of some. And they tend to base it on Wonderlic test scores from the NFL Combine. The Wonderlic test is a 12-minute 50 question exam designed to measure the learning and problem solving ability of employees. On average, NFL quarterbacks scored a 24 on the test. Notable Wonderlic scores for black quaterbacks? Vince Young scored a 6 the first time he took it. Former Kansas State quarterback Michael Bishop scored a 10. NFL bust Jamarcus Russell scored a 24 on the test. Quincy Carter, a former for my beloved Dallas Cowboys, scored an impressive 30. Notable Wonderlic scores for white quarterbacks? Dan Marino, Terry Bradshaw, and and Jim Kelly—all Hall of Famers— scored 15 on the test.
What does that tell us? Not much. Data is all over the place. Yet, black quarterbacks receive a higher level of scrutiny when it comes to reading defenses, memorizing playbooks, and leading NFL teams. Admittedly, black NFL quarterbacks have been hit and miss. From the late Steve McNair, who was inches away from becoming the second black NFL quarterback to win a Super Bowl to Colin Kaepernick, who broke Michael Vick’s single game postseason rushing record by running around, through, and over the Green Bay Pakers, black quarterbacks have had great success in the league. But there’s also the cautionary tale of JaMarcus Russell. Russell was selected first overall in the 2007 NFL draft (over some guy named Calvin Johnson). Russell had a strong arm and, as mentioned above, scored well on the cognitive testing in pre-draft camps. Neither translated well on the field (not to mention that he ballooned to around 300 pounds).
Last week, during the first round of the draft, Geno Smith sat. And sat. And sat. His name wasn’t called. Expected to be the first quarterback drafted, instead he was drafted in the second round. Ironically, E.J. Manuel, another black quarterback who wasn’t on most peoples’ radars, was drafted in the first round. As I watched the camera fixed on Smith late in the first round, I envisioned one of those “that awkward moment when…” memes. And I couldn’t help but think about black NFL quarterbacks’ struggles to prove themselves at a position traditionally dominated by their white counterparts. This year two of the eleven quarterbacks drafted were black. They also just so happened to be the first two selected in the draft. Progress? Only time will tell.