From his seat at M&T Bank Stadium during last weekend’s NFL game between the Baltimore Ravens and Arizona Cardinals, Cyrus Mehri knew he was witnessing something special.
In a matchup of the youngest African American starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era, 22-year-old Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, the top pick in this year’s draft, threw for 349 yards in only his second professional contest.
Not to be outdone, second-year Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, also 22, became the only player in regular-season league history to throw for at least 270 yards and rush for at least 120 yards, leading Baltimore to a 23-17 victory.
As a fan, Mehri was thrilled. And as the civil rights attorney who helped establish the Rooney Rule – which requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operations jobs – he understood the deeper significance of the moment for a league that long has excluded African Americans from its most important and celebrated on-field position.
“Kyler Murray showed maturity beyond his years,” Mehri said. “They had no running game. The stadium is so loud. It was 100% on him. And he carved up the defense.
“Then you look at Lamar Jackson. His field awareness was so impressive. He can sense the pass rush and escape. He places the ball with nice touch. He’s showing the complete game.
“We’re trying to overcome 100 years – literally 100 years! – of stereotyping of black quarterbacks. And they demolished all of them in that one game.”
As the NFL celebrates its centennial season, the league is experiencing a changing of its quarterback guard. Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck are retired. Eli Manning has been benched. Ben Roethlisberger is out for the season, and faces an uncertain future.
Health permitting, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Phillip Rivers continue to truck along – but each is far closer to the end of their careers than the beginning.
All of those players are white. Meanwhile, the NFL’s most promising and accomplished young signal-callers are predominantly black: not just Jackson and Murray, but also Dallas’ Dak Prescott (26 years old), Houston’s Deshaun Watson (24), and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes (24).
And that’s not all. As Jason Reid of The Undefeated has noted, 2019 marks the first year in which the league’s reigning MVP (Mahomes), No 1 overall pick (Murray), highest-paid player (Seattle’s Russell Wilson), and a former MVP (Carolina’s Cam Newton) are all African American quarterbacks.
Small wonder, then, that Reid’s website has declared this “the year of the black QB”. Yet that same excellence raises a question: given that roughly 70% of NFL players are African American, why has it taken so long for the league’s marquee position to begin to follow suit?
The answer lies in a lengthy history of overt discrimination and subtle bias – and a determined, multi-generational effort by black athletes to overcome both.
“How do you get from there to here?” Mehri says. “You build a wall of integration. Bit by bit. Brick by brick.”