Lamar Jackson and the Racism of ‘Running Quarterbacks’
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Lamar Jackson and the Racism of ‘Running Quarterbacks’

The quarterback is now one of the best players…

Two Sundays ago, quarterback Lamar Jackson led the Baltimore Ravens to victory over the San Francisco 49ers, ending his opponents’ reign as the only one-loss team in the NFL and continuing what has by now become a nine-game winning streak. He also ran for 101 yards, becoming the first quarterback in league history to rack up 100 or more four times in a season — chiefly because of his success with play action and read option plays, in which he fakes a handoff before deciding to run the ball himself.

For many fans, the game served as a likely preview of Super Bowl LIV — two teams, favorites in their respective conferences, operating at the heights of their powers. For 49ers team radio commentator Tim Ryan, it served as a chance to trot out one of the most ridiculous traditions in professional football.

In a talk radio appearance the next day, Ryan delivered a piercing analysis as to why Jackson has been so successful this season. “He’s really good at that fake,” the commentator said. “But when you consider his dark skin color with a dark football with a dark uniform, you could not see that thing.”

So. A few things from a chromatic standpoint. Baltimore’s uniforms are primarily purple and black — colors that, because you are a human being with eyes, you might realize aren’t the same as an NFL football’s. Another thing not the same shade as a football? Jackson’s skin. There are, however, many players in the NFL with Jackson’s skin tone and even similar uniform colors who aren’t enjoying MVP-caliber seasons. Weird how that works.

While the admittedly high comedy level of Ryan’s comments made it easy to dismiss them for the nonsense that they were, this type of racist criticism is sadly familiar to Jackson. Ryan just happened to drop the usual double-speak dressing up the racism.

From the moment Jackson entered the 2018 NFL draft, his talent became the target of undue skepticism. He’d been one of the greatest playmakers in the history of college football; he’d won the Heisman Trophy in 2016; yet, analysts still doubted his ability to play quarterback. Former Indianapolis Colts team president Bill Polian and others maintained that Jackson would never make it as an NFL quarterback, and should move to wide receiver instead. Teams asked him to run receiver drills at the scouting combine, in case they wanted him to play that position instead. He slipped all the way until the final pick in the first round, at which the Ravens traded picks in order to select him — even though they’d passed on him earlier in the round.

Jackson took over the starting role in Baltimore midway through his rookie season after filling in for injured quarterback Joe Flacco. The Ravens stuck with the rookie, who then led a relatively inexperienced squad to a division title — making him the youngest quarterback ever to do so. Yet, sports writers referred to him as a glorified running back, and after he struggled in the playoffs, they wrote him off yet again.

When Black athletes see success, pundits credit ‘athleticism.’ Meanwhile, white players get praise for their hard work and brain power.

The cycle has continued even as Jackson has blossomed in the NFL. If he played well, there was always a disqualifying excuse. First, he was only a great runner because he wasn’t a good passer. When he erupted as a great passer — he currently leads the league in passing touchdowns and quarterback rating — many still wrote him off, saying he was only an injury away from obscurity. (Which makes him like, oh, pretty much every other NFL player.) Ryan took it a step farther: now, Jackson’s success is a matter of color coordination rather than talent.

This is a common narrative surrounding Black athletes, and especially quarterbacks. Whether Doug Williams leading the Redskins to a Super Bowl win as a backup in 1988, Michael Vick becoming the first Black quarterback to be the first pick in the NFL draft, or Patrick Mahomes being the reigning MVP, the media still manages to discredit them. When Black athletes see success, pundits credit “athleticism.” Last year, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith tried to credit the success of Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins to his ability as a “runner quarterback” despite Haskins rarely, if ever, running the ball.

Meanwhile, White players get praise for their hard work and brain power. The thing is, white players usually test just as well athletically as Black players. According to Relative Athletic Score, the two most athletic players in the 2019 NFL draft, relative to their height, weight, and position, were both White. “Hard working,” “deceptively athletic,” “high IQ,” and “gritty” have become punchline descriptors, laughable for their flimsiness. In this world, White athletes’ success is never a result of their bodies — just their brains and work ethics that allow them to succeed against stacked natural odds.

This past Sunday, in the Ravens’ first game since Ryan’s comments, Jackson came out wearing white sleeves instead of his usual black. Even starker was the difference between him and his opponent — and the narratives that had been attached to them. Bills starting quarterback Josh Allen had also been taken in the first round of the 2018 draft, but the similarities end there. As a college player for the University of Wyoming, Allen had struggled against subpar competition; meanwhile, Jackson, playing for Louisville, had given some of the nation’s best teams all they could handle. Yet, Allen was picked seventh — 25 spots before Jackson. (Now’s the part where you guess Allen’s race. Surprise: he’s White!)

Allen was given the benefit of the doubt at every stage of his career. Draft analyst Mel Kiper, when asked why he was bullish on Allen’s pro prospects despite a middling college career, went so far as to say “stats are for losers.” In a way, he was absolutely right: Even with a slight improvement this year, Allen has been one of the NFL’s worst passers since entering the league.

Giving White quarterbacks the benefit of the doubt — and giving Black QBs the opposite — isn’t new territory for the Bills. In 2017, while the team was in the running for their first playoff appearance of the millennium, the Bills responded to a loss by benching Pro Bowl quarterback Tyrod Taylor for a rookie. His White replacement, Nathan Peterman, threw five interceptions in the first half in what proved to be one of the worst quarterback outings in NFL history — at which point the Bills reinstated Taylor, and he led the team to its only playoff appearance of the 21st century. (Now’s the part where you guess whether that stopped the Bills from trading Taylor away and making Peterman the starter the following season. Surprise: it did not!)

In fact, teams all over the league continue to find excuses for underperforming White quarterbacks. Despite being one of the worst quarterbacks in NFL history, Peterman currently remains employed by the Oakland Raiders. Josh Allen remains the face of the franchise in Buffalo, even though the team is reluctant to put the ball in his hands in late-game scenarios. In San Diego, longtime vet Philip Rivers has been one of the worst quarterbacks in the league this season — yet he continues to start. (Now’s the part where you guess who his backup is. Surprise: it’s Tyrod Taylor!)

Back in Baltimore, Lamar Jackson still didn’t enter the season in the starting role — and it took him an MVP-caliber season to finally gain respect as the team’s franchise quarterback. Then there’s the matter of one Colin Kaepernick, who still can’t find a job in the NFL despite leading the 49ers to a Super Bowl in 2013.

Tonight, the Ravens welcome the New York Jets to Baltimore, Correction: they welcome the 5–8 New York Jets to Baltimore. Jackson will almost certainly excel against the Jets’ utterly mediocre defense, while New York quarterback Sam Darnold, who was also picked ahead of Jackson, enjoys… let’s just call them lower odds. Yet, regardless of the final score or the two quarterbacks’ performances, one thing will be clear: Darnold will likely enjoy a long, if not successful, career in the NFL. And Jackson? Well, Jackson’s just one injury away from obscurity.

Good thing he’s got those sleeves on.