Lamar Jackson

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Feinstein: Race Always A Factor At QB, In Sports

John Feinstein
September 10, 2019 - 12:30 pm
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                Throughout the endless hype leading to the 2018 NFL draft, the talking heads on TV never stopped debating the question that has become an important part of every draft: Who is the best quarterback?
 
            According to them—unanimously—there were four quarterbacks worthy of consideration to be chosen number one: Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield; USC’s Sam Darnold; Wyoming’s Josh Allen and UCLA’s Josh Rosen. The only question raised about any of them was Mayfield’s height. Maybe at just a shade over 6-feet he was a bit of a risk as the No. 1 pick.
 
            The Cleveland Browns made him the No. 1 pick and, so far, so good; Mayfield’s play as a rookie gave long-suffering fans in Cleveland reason for hope this season—Sunday’s embarrassing 43-13 loss to the Tennessee Titans notwithstanding.
 
            Let’s go back to April of 2018 when the consensus was this: there were four quarterbacks in the draft who were as close to being sure things as a college quarterback can be entering the NFL. Everyone knows all the horror stories about highly-drafted quarterbacks flopping. Every year, there’s almost always one.
 
            There was one quarterback with an impressive resume whose name rarely came up in these discussions: Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. He had won the Heisman Trophy in 2016 as a sophomore and then finished third in the voting behind Mayfield and Stanford’s Bryce Love a year later.
 
            He was the perfect size for a quarterback: 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds. He had great speed and a strong arm; perhaps not a cannon, but strong enough, especially given his ability to extend plays with his speed and elusiveness.
 
            No one—NO ONE—ever mentioned him as a possible first round pick as a quarterback. Many experts said his future was as a wide receiver or perhaps even as a running back. A lot of people compared Robert Griffin III, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft to Jackson. Griffin had great speed and had good size and a strong arm, but, at that moment, was out of football—his career apparently ruined by running himself into injuries.
 
            Griffin and Jackson had one other important thing in common: both were black.
 
            As it turned out, Jackson did get chosen in the first round—with the 32ndand final pick. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was the Baltimore Ravens Ozzie Newsome, the NFL’s first African-American general manager, who chose him.
 
            After Joe Flacco was injured, Jackson became the Ravens starter midway through last season and, after the team changed its offense to accommodate his skills, the Ravens finished the season on a 6-1 run to win the AFC North.
 
            On Sunday, the Ravens opened the season by crushing the Miami Dolphins, 59-10 in Miami. Jackson completed 17-of-20 passes for 359 yards and five touchdowns.
            “Not bad for a running back,” Jackson joked after the game. Clearly, he hasn’t forgotten what so many scouts and TV talking heads had to say about him 18 months ago. Nor should he.
 
            The Dolphins are awful, so to anoint Jackson as the next Tom Brady based on one performance, is foolish—almost as foolish as those who suggested he should play wide receiver.
 
            Here’s a fact: If Jackson had been the exact same player and he was white, no one would have ever suggested he play wide receiver.
 
            Let’s remember that as recently as 1978, Warren Moon—a future Hall-of-Famer—went undrafted in what was then a 12-round NFL draft and had to spend the first six years of his pro career in Canada.
 
            No African-American quarterback was taken with the No. 1 pick in the draft until 2001—when the Falcons chose Michael Vick. Since then four other African-Americans have been chosen No. 1: Jamarcus Russell in 2007; Cam Newton in 2010; Jameis Winston in 2015 and Kyler Murray this past year.
 
            Murray is the outlier among the last four: Russell, Winston and Newton were all huge (at least 6-foot-5) and had cannon arms that made them, in the opinion of scouts, can’t miss players. Newton and Winston both had off-field issues in college but were chosen anyway. Murray is only 5-foot-9, which normally frightens off NFL teams. But new Arizona coach Kliff Kinsgsbury was convinced Murray was perfect for his offense and took the leap.
 
            African-American quarterbacks have come a long way since the days when they weren’t considered ‘smart,’ enough to play the position. But it’s worth noting that Jackson isn’t the only African-American who is proving himself as a star at the position who was overlooked to one degree or another by the so-called experts.
 
            Russell Wilson wasn’t taken until the third round—too short, the scouts said. Dak Prescott went in the fourth round and the Cowboys ended up with him only because Steven Jones, son of team owner Jerry, talked his father out of drafting Johnny Manziel in the first round.
 
            Patrick Mahomes went to Kansas City with the 10thpick in the first round in 2017—eight picks after the Bears used the No. 2 pick to take Mitchell Trubisky. Two picks after Mahomes, the Houston Texans took DeShaun Watson. Can anyone out there give me a reason why Trubisky went ahead of Mahomes and Watson—other than the obvious?
 
            This past year, after Murray went to the Cardinals, the New York Giants used the No. 6 pick on Daniel Jones. That allowed Washington, which normally can’t find the ocean from a rowboat, to take Dwayne Haskins at No. 15. The jury is still out on Jones and Haskins, but I’m betting on Haskins.
 
            It isn’t as if NFL teams don’t make mistakes on white quarterbacks. Brady is and always will be the most glaring example—the 199thpick in the draft almost 20 years ago. But far more often than not, quarterbacks who are either overlooked or go a few picks behind a white quarterback of similar or lesser ability, are African-American.
 
            Having said all that, let’s bring up the elephant (or the quarterback) who remains in the room at all times: Colin Kaepernick.
 
            Kaepernick was a good enough quarterback to take the San Francisco 49ers to the 2013 Super Bowl and almost led a miraculous fourth quarter rally in that game. A year later, after the 49ers had traded Alex Smith because they were convinced Kaepernick was going to be their quarterback for a long time, San Francisco went 12-4 and lost narrowly to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC championship game.
 
            After going 8-8 in 2014, Jim Harbaugh, who had made Kaepernick his starter, left for Michigan and was replaced by Jim Tomsula. Kaepernick was benched, then injured during Tomsula’s one season in San Francisco.
 
            The following summer, with Chip Kelly coaching the team, he began his national anthem protests, first sitting and then kneeling. He began to kneel on the advice of a former NFL player who had been in the military, who told him that soldiers frequently knelt at the graves of fallen comrades as a tribute to them.
 
            As well know, all hell broke loose in the wake of Kaepernick’s protest. Other African-American players joined him during the season. Kaepernick, who ended up starting 11 games for a bad team that fall, announced early in 2017 that he would look for other ways to continue his protest against police brutality but would stand for the anthem the following season.
 
            He never got the chance. He became a free agent in March and none of the 32 teams would touch him. The President of the United States suggested he, “find another country,” and he became the second most polarizing figure (behind the President) in a polarized country.
 
            Even though he’d been a starter in 2016 and was not yet 30, no NFL team could find a spot for him even as a BACKUP. The mainstream NFL media—TV, radio and print—fell in line with the NFL’s propaganda, producing all sorts of stories from ‘anonymous,” executives about how Kaepernick really couldn’t play anymore.
 
            Many bought that line because they WANTED TO buy it. When the President again attacked those protesting by not standing for the anthem—“Fire the SOBS!”—the number of players protesting went from eight the week before to more than 200 the Sunday after the rant.
 
            It has since quieted—as has the President. But Kaepernick was—clearly—blackballed out of the league for speaking up.
 
            His protest and the response to it, is unfortunately, symbolic of the racial divide that still exists in this country. Most white sports fans LOVE African-American athletes—as long as they’re producing on the field or the court—and keeping their mouths shut. 
 
During the anthem protests in 2017, many white NFL fans complained that the players were, “ruining their enjoyment of the game.” The protests took place before the games began and in no way affected play. Very few white Americans complain when pro sports leagues—not to mention the PGA Tour—wrap themselves in the flag to prove what great people they are. That too is a political statement—it’s just one that most white people—especially those with money--are comfortable with.
 
Why is Tiger Woods so popular with most golf fans? Because he’s the greatest player in history and has never once made any kind of social or political statement. He spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the week of Barack Obama’s first inaugural. Now, he plays golf with Donald Trump. He knows how to have it both ways.
 
            Lebron James, on the other hand, is told to “shut up and dribble,” by a right-wing talking head. ESPN is pilloried because a a handful of its commentators—some of them African-Americans—speak out on political issues. The new president of ESPN has, for the most part, put an end to that.
 
            “Stick to sports,” is a phrase thrown out by people when athletes or people like me bring up political issues—especially those that involve race. It reminds me a little bit of my eight-year-old daughter, who covers her ears when I point out what a mess she’s made of the family room. If you can’t hear what’s wrong then nothing is wrong. Right?
 
            Politics and sports are linked and have always been linked. The first marathon was run in ancient Greece in order to report the outcome of a war. That’s how far back it goes.
 
            Race is always a factor in sports. Always. Nine years ago, I attacked then Washington coach Mike Shanahan when he used all sorts of racial coding to explain the benching of his quarterback, Donavan McNabb.
 
            After taking McNabb out late in a game at Detroit, Shanahan explained he wasn’t sure McNabb knew the team’s two-minute offense—midway through the season. The next day he changed his story, saying he wondered if McNabb was in shape to run back-to-back plays. When that didn’t fly he (or someone on his staff) anonymously (talk about cowardice) told ESPN’s Craig Mortensen that the playbook had to be cut in half because McNabb couldn’t learn it.
 
            In short, the black QB was dumb; out-of-shape and then really dumb.
 
            When I pointed all this out, I was pilloried by the NFL’s mainstream media for “playing the race card.” Shanahan had played the race card and the go-along-to-get-alongs in the media just nodded their heads obediently—just as they did with Kaepernick. My crime was pointing it out.
 
            I expect to be pilloried in many of those same quarters for this column. That’s fine. I’ll finish by repeating Lamar Jackson’s quote from Sunday: “Not bad for a running back.”
 
 
            John Feinstein’s latest non-fiction book, “Quarterback—Inside the Most Important Position in Professional Sports,” is now out in paperback. So too is, “The Prodigy,” his novel about a 17-year-old with a chance to win the Masters. His newest book is, “Benchwarmers,” a Young Adult novel about a sixth-grade girl denied the chance to play on a boys soccer team even though she is clearly one of the best players at the tryouts…John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com