In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick demonstrated the influence a starting NFL quarterback could have when he began taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem.
Kaepernick’s bold action, designed to protest police violence against Black people, sparked worldwide protests that went beyond the NFL. Athletes around the world began kneeling. Kaepernick’s protest became a movement. Powerful NFL team owners, embarrassed and caught off guard, were desperate to shut the demonstrations down.
Although the protest resulted in Kaepernick being blackballed from the NFL, he ignited a civil rights movement in sports and underscored the influence a star player at the NFL’s most glamorous position could have — if they chose to use it.
It’s doubtful that a star player at any other position could have sparked such turmoil. Quarterback is football’s glamour position and arguably the most unique position in team sports.
Two weeks ago, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts became the first African American quarterbacks to face each other in a Super Bowl. Kansas City prevailed but the high-profile ascension of Mahomes and Hurts served notice that the reign of the traditional white quarterback was over and a new era of young, mobile, mostly Black quarterbacks is emerging and changing the game in unique and entertaining ways.
In April, three young African American quarterbacks — Florida’s Anthony Richardson, Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud — are expected to be among the first quarterbacks taken in the NFL draft. It’s possible that two of the three will be taken 1-2, making this the first time two Black quarterbacks have been taken with the first two picks of the draft.
But as younger African American quarterbacks enter the league and lead their teams to success, will they use their influence, as Kaepernick did, to make changes that owners have otherwise resisted: hiring Black head coaches, making guaranteed contracts a fact of life?
I thought about this during the run-up to the Super Bowl. Media celebrated the historic milestone of Mahomes and Hurts, even as Black head coaching candidates continued to be passed over.
Of five teams with head-coaching openings, only one, the Houston Texans, hired a Black coach (DeMeco Ryans). With the hiring of Ryans, three of the NFL’s 32 teams now have a Black head coach: Houston, the Pittsburgh Steelers (Mike Tomlin) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Todd Bowles).
Owners have largely ignored calls for fairness from the outside; perhaps they will listen to elite quarterbacks on whom their fortunes depend. Quarterback has always been an essential position but today in a pass-first league, the quarterback position is more important than ever.
Whether the position’s importance translates into influence depends on whether the quarterbacks assume a Kaepernick state of mind.
Hurts has already made a mark. His agent, Nicole Lynn, became the first Black woman to represent a starting quarterback in the Super Bowl. Additionally, three of the five members of Hurt’s all-female public relations/marketing team are Black. This attention to racial and gender detail reflects a consciousness that will only increase as Hurts becomes more successful in the league.
Influence and winning go hand-in-hand.
In 2020, Mahomes put up money to purchase voting machines to be placed inside Arrowhead Stadium. For Mahomes, who was an outspoken advocate for getting out the vote, the placement of machines at Arrowhead would facilitate increased voter turnout. Mahomes, along with other NFL athletes, pushed the NFL to publicly support social justice initiatives.
The potential differences between white quarterbacks and the coming influx of young Black quarterbacks are their connection to an African American community and to issues that impact those communities. Kaepernick embraced those issues — police violence, economic injustice — and used his status as a star NFL quarterback to call attention to those issues. Will the new wave of Black quarterbacks over the next decade continue to identify with their communities and the struggles in those communities? Or will they disconnect?
Ultimately, activism cost Kaepernick his job, though had he continued to lead San Francisco to postseason appearances and championships he may have enjoyed a longer NFL career.
When he was with the Texans, quarterback Deshaun Watson attempted to use his influence to compel the Texans to interview Black candidates for the Texans’ vacant front office position. When the team did not consult him and hired a white executive, Watson said he no longer wanted to play for the Texans and wanted out. Watson appeared to have the upper hand in a principled stand. Then he was hit with 22 accusations of sexual misconduct. Undaunted, and to the dismay of NFL owners, the Cleveland Browns traded for Watson and gave him a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract.
Elite quarterbacks are hard to find. Watson didn’t set out to be an advocate for guaranteed contracts — he was using his status to advocate for more diversity in the Texans’ front office —but he inadvertently inspired one of the league’s superstar young Black quarterbacks to take on the NFL.
Lamar Jackson may never lead a Kaepernick-like social justice movement, but the Baltimore Ravens’ 26-year-old quarterback is going head-to-head with the NFL establishment by insisting on becoming the third NFL quarterback to receive a fully guaranteed contract. Kirk Cousins received a two-year, fully guaranteed contract worth $70 million with Minnesota Vikings in 2020. Watson received his last spring.
What’s fascinating is that big-name quarterbacks who had far more leverage than Cousins — Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees — either never insisted on fully guaranteed contracts or chose not to put up a fight when the team refused.
Kyler Murray signed a five-year, $230.5 million contract extension with the Arizona Cardinals in July 2022 that was not fully guaranteed. In September, Russell Wilson signed a five-year, $245 million contract extensions with Denver that is also not fully guaranteed.
Jackson is engaged in a tug-of-war, not only with the Ravens but with an NFL establishment that does not want to see him receive the fully guaranteed contract he believes he deserves. Owners are attempting to preserve a way of life that Jackson is challenging, just as Kaepernick challenged a way of life that many NFL owners tacitly supported.
When I talk about future Black quarterbacks using their influence to force change, I was referring to social and political change, and changing the landscape for aspiring Black coaches.
But Jackson could take his place among Black athletes who helped change the foundation of their respective sports: Curt Flood began the fight for free agency in the MLB, Oscar Robertson filed an antitrust suit against the NBA. That suit ultimately reformed the NBA’s free agency and draft rules and led to greater compensation for all players.
Will Jackson sit out the 2023 season rather than play under the exclusive franchise tag (some players call it the “Prison Tag”) which prevents him from negotiating with other teams? With the tag deadline set to expire on March 7, will the Ravens allow Jackson to become a free agent and will an NFL team break ranks, as Cleveland and Minnesota did, and give an elite quarterback a fully guaranteed contract? Will the Ravens give in and give Jackson what he wants?
Last year, Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti told reporters at the league’s annual meetings “Without a QB you believe in, life sucks.” Does Bisciotti want to find out? A group of young talented quarterbacks — Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence Josh Allen, Justin Herbert — is watching the Baltimore situation and a new flock just entering the league is taking note.
Influence comes in all shapes and sizes. How will current and future generations of Black quarterbacks use theirs?