Natividad: Can we leave black quarterbacks alone already?
Growing up watching football as a teenager I remember watching Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair — that beast of a man — lead his team to Super Bowl XXXIV against the St. Louis Rams. On the final play of the game he completed a red zone pass to wide receiver Kevin Dyson who ran the ball from five yards out lunging toward the goal line only to be just inches shy of the score which would have sent the game into overtime. I remember jumping off the couch on that final play in excitement… Excitement which turned into disappointment, as McNair was one of my favorite players back then because he was so damn tough.
Looking back I realize that was the first time I had watched a non-white quarterback play in the Super Bowl, (I was too young to remember Doug Williams and the Washington Redskins in 1988, and those that came before him). When it came to black quarterbacks, there are only a handful I remember from my childhood. There were the Kordell Stewart years in Pittsburgh, Warren Moon in Minnesota and Michael Vick in Atlanta. I’m sure there were more but for some reason the quarterback position seemed like an exclusively white position at the time.
Maybe there were limited options?… I doubt that.
Well the times have changed, though, and we’ve seen the likes of Donovan McNabb, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick play in the ‘ship since then. Most recently, young African American quarterbacks seem to be taking over the league. From Deshaun Watson in Houston to Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, these quarterbacks are currently leading their teams to the upper echelon of their conference standings.
And then there is Lamar Jackson.
The Baltimore Ravens’ second year quarterback phenom has had this aura of invincibility as of late, taking down the likes of Wilson’s Seattle Seahawks and Tom Brady’s defending champion New England Patriots. Riding an eight-game win streak, the Ravens sit atop the standings with the most impressive 10-2 record in the league to date. Unfortunately for 49er fans, one of those wins was at our team’s expense last week, as the Niners fell to the Ravens 20-17. It was a heartbreaking loss that saw Ravens kicker Justin Tucker launch a 49-yard field goal through the uprights at the buzzer for the win.
While Jackson’s offense was not as effective against the 49ers as it has been against the rest of the league, he is still a prime candidate for the league’s Most Valuable Player award, and rightfully so. Through just 12 games, he has recorded over 2,500 passing yards with 25 touchdowns and only five interceptions; Jackson has also rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns, fumbling the ball to the other team just once this season.
Some of his success has been attributed to his ability to keep opposing defenders guessing through the read option. In fact, the 49ers very own radio broadcaster Tim Ryan had his own thoughts on Jackson’s execution of the double option against the 49ers. During an interview on the “Murph & Mac” show on KNBR, Ryan said “He’s really good at that fake, Lamar Jackson, but when you consider his dark skin color with a dark football with a dark uniform, you could not see that thing. I mean, you literally could not see when he was in and out of the mesh point.”
Wow… Just. Wow.
If you’re going to make an excuse for a team losing, find a better one. While Jackson did run for over 100 yards and one touchdown in a close low-scoring game, the 49ers had their opportunities to tie or even win the game.
Even if the read-option was the reason the Ravens won, maybe, just maybe it’s because Jackson is faster and better than any other quarterback in the league in making the best read and running away from opposing defenders. I think that would make more sense than blaming it on his ability to hide the football with his black skin… But I digress.
Given the historical barriers and negative stereotypes black athletes have had to endure throughout the years due to the color of their skin, claiming that a black athlete has an advantage because of that skin color is laughable. If this was really about pointing out an unfair advantage Jackson has in running the read-option, then why aren’t analysts and broadcasters complaining about the color of a wide receivers’ shoes? Wouldn’t white cleats make it hard for refs and opposing teams to tell if they stepped on the white out of bounds lines? The Cleveland Browns’ uniforms are just as dark, and their quarterback Baker Mayfield is known for wearing those black sleeves over his arms, yet no qualms there.
So what’s really going on here?
I have to say this is in keeping with a pattern of criticism black quarterbacks get based on their race, criticism that has previously been acceptable in our public discourse and has nothing to do with football, and more to do with ignorance.
In 2003, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh accused the media of some kind of industry affirmative action, claiming they were bias in favor of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb because he is black. Limbaugh stated that “the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well … he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he really didn’t deserve.” McNabb had just been to three straight Pro Bowls and two consecutive NFC Championship games, and was also runner-up for NFL MVP in his first full season as a starter.
After taking over as the starting quarterback for the 49ers in 2012, Kaepernick led the team to their first Super Bowl since the Steve Young era, but instead of talking football, pundits criticized him for being a quarterback who has biblical tattoos, with one columnist comparing him to an inmate in San Quentin. Meanwhile, the quarterback whom he replaced — Alex Smith, who is white — admittedly had his own set of tattoos in honor of his Serbian heritage, though not a peep was uttered from columnists about him.
Just last year, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson was openly ridiculed by a Texas school district superintendent who, after a Texans loss, posted on social media that, “When you need precision decision making you can’t count on a black quarterback.” Watson would lead the team to an AFC South Division title and playoff appearance that season.
It is hard to speculate whether Ryan’s comments about Jackson came from a place of hate or racism. The 49ers have since suspended Ryan, who released a statement saying, “I regret my choice of words in trying to describe the conditions of the game. Lamar Jackson is an MVP-caliber player, and I respect him greatly. I want to sincerely apologize to him and anyone else I offended.”
Fair enough. Hopefully next time in his commentary he’ll use his brain a little more, read the field a little better, and choose a different option.
Ivan Natividad is a columnist who contributes to The Union regularly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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