A Sorry System: An Op-Ed Look at Football’s Race Problem

by | Apr 16, 2021 | General | 0 comments

Photo by Bleacher Report

I am an apologist; we all are. If I burn my signature dish and order takeout (happens more than you think), I try to justify the cost of restaurant food as “a nice change of pace” or “supporting the struggling service industry during a pandemic.” I’m not saying these things facetiously; they are honest sentiments, but I am using them to mask my brooding frustration with myself for ruining the original plan.

In order to maintain an even keel or status quo, a decision is made to make an excuse or give reason to something that is occurring that will cause a shift in the comfortable norm. This is an innate survival trait for most people, but to some, their mere awareness of a constantly shifting fulcrum is used actionably to counterbalance the narrative. This, in turn, can alter the perception of negativity by that person or a group of people. What the hell does that mean? Basically, a person in a position of influence can manipulate a situation to suit their (or their company’s) best interest, especially if the norm is shifting away from favorability.

The franchise owners in the National Football League are billionaires. Without throwing down the obvious race ace in their hand, the influence of these individuals and groups that own NFL teams is immense. Many of them also own good portions of the major city they call home. Everyone knowing your name and business in a small town is small potatoes, compared to that extrapolated over a metropolis with hundreds of thousands to millions of residents. We, as normal non-billionaires, would surely opt-out of the seedy and shady underbelly of that world. Here is where race comes in: that world runs on a system. That system hums along like a diesel generator that gets daily maintenance from a team of expert mechanics. The mechanics have lived by the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” for centuries. It now translates to “Any change is a threat.”

I make excuses all the time for my Dallas Cowboys. My fandom has been torn down and rebuilt with masking tape and Popsicle sticks repeatedly for the last 25 years, each time seemingly with less care and skill than the last. Jerry Jones is known for a lot of things, but I will highlight his propensity to “give second chances.” Jones also holds the gavel over certain ownership privileges when it comes to collective bargaining, almost as a pseudo-commissioner. Jerry operates on both ends of the conversation masterfully and seems impervious to the backlash from either side. Jerry Jones is the face of the system and thus knows how to work it in his favor. He wields as much power as an owner as anyone, but seems to always endear himself with black players who might have otherwise been victimized by a system that is designed to mercilessly cull athletes with “question marks” or “character concerns.”

The system is inarguably racist. Fortunately, for many NFL teams, change has been embraced in the name of progress and improvement. In a league whose employees are 75 percent people of color, we are seeing the gears of progress slowly churn in the right direction. However, every 10 years we are reminded of the distance still to go when the owners and NFL Player Association union negotiate the next collective bargaining agreement. Negotiations between white billionaires and mostly black millionaires are an almost-perfect microcosm of race relations in the United States. Racial innuendos have even been uttered to the press by NFL brass. The same old inflammatory rhetoric to dehumanize and delegitimize minority groups even trickles down to the NFL draft process, mostly at the quarterback position.

Dak Prescott was an exemplary college quarterback and was obviously raised to be a fine young man, who carries himself with integrity and class. Prescott also has developed into a Pro-Bowl caliber player and ultimately earned a large contract extension. He is, however, far from the only example of a black quarterback whose draft stock (and earning power) was deflated immensely between taking his final snap at Mississippi State and his name being called in the fourth round in 2016. There was no evidence on tape to suggest he couldn’t read defenses, make quick decisions, throw accurately into tight windows, or grasp a pro-style offense operating under center. Each of these scarlet letters floated in from the ether, via anonymous scouts or attention-seeking “draft analysts.” Any and all micro-aggressions that can be applied to a black quarterback were predictably clamped to Dak in 2016, Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes in 2017, Lamar Jackson in 2018, Kyler Murray and Dwayne Haskins in 2019, and Jalen Hurts and Jordan Love in 2020. Kyler Murray’s selection by Arizona at number one overall was the only example of these listed quarterbacks whose rookie signing bonus was not adversely affected by the rhetoric surrounding him as a prospect. This has been shown to be mostly due to the chasm of talent between him and the rest of that quarterback class. He also fit into new coach Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense like a glove. The extreme example of my point is the case of Lamar Jackson, who despite posting prolific passing numbers at Louisville, was pressured to change positions to “better utilize his skillset (athleticism).”

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

With time, the universe is expanding and horizons are broadening. Offensive coaching gurus are all the rage. They are adapting schemes around their talent, instead of vice-versa. Quarterbacks with the ability to run the football, regardless of race, are cherished like never before for their propensity to stress the defense and extend plays beyond the pocket. The days of labeling just the white quarterbacks as “cerebral” or “a field general” are dwindling. There will come a time in the near future when the rumors will stop swirling around only black quarterbacks about work ethic, study habits, and effort. Eventually, the men who run the system will stop apologizing, making excuses, or outright ignoring deficiencies and character flaws in white quarterbacks, while illuminating lesser blemishes elsewhere. Someday, football will look back and feel sorry for the missed opportunities to be better…earlier. It took a Brian Billick to trust Randall Cunningham, Dick Vermeil to empower Mike Vick, and Andy Reid to elevate Donovan McNabb and then Mahomes for the football world to change perspective. Hopefully, tomorrow brings permanence to the steps we are taking right now.

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