Now Nine Decades After NFL Banned Black Players

“The NFL has a long and racist history with Black QBs. There was a time when people questioned if Black quarterbacks had the intellectual capability to play the most mentally challenging position in American team sports. Often praised for their athletic ability, they’ve been criticized for not having the acumen to be the signal caller for a professional football team. Now, nearly 50 years after James “Shack” Harris and Marlin Briscoe became the first wave of Black players to start at the position, the two best teams in the NFL are being led by two Black QBs and Black people couldn’t be happier about it.” – Noah A. McGee

The National Football League has traveled a long and rocky road to Super Bowl LVII, the first in history to feature two Black starting quarterbacks.

In 1920, when the NFL was founded, major league baseball had been racially segregated for more than 50 years. But football was unpopular and good players were hard to find.

Team owners figured the public wouldn’t care enough to complain about the few Black players on their rosters. In 1933, George Preston Marshall, who owned the only team south of the Mason-Dixon line, instigated a secret ban on Black players.

After World War II, which saw more than a million Black Americans fight for their country, the integrated All-America Football Conference emerged to compete with the NFL. By the time the two leagues emerged in 1950, six teams had signed Black players.

But racist assumptions kept Black players from the starting quarterback position for nearly another two decades. Doug Williams became the first quarterback to start in – and win – a Super Bowl in 1988. It was not until 2017 that all 32 NFL teams had started at least one Black quarterback.

And it has taken until 2023 for two teams with Black starting quarterbacks to meet in the Super Bowl.

Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs and Jalen Hurts of the Philadelphia Eagles have more in common than this milestone moment. Both of them followed their fathers’ footsteps into professional sports. Mahomes’ father, Pat, is a retired Major League pitcher. Hurts’ father, Averion, turned to coaching after a knee injury ended his professional football career, and he coached his son throughout high school.

Mahomes, who led his team to the Super Bowl two years ago, has already made history as the youngest player in NFL history to have won the regular-season MVP award and Super Bowl MVP honors. His father’s career has given him special insight into the culture of professional sports.

“He gives me advice about how he transitioned into becoming a pro athlete and the work that you actually have to put into it,” Mahomes told the Kansas City Star. “Not a lot of people see that when you’re growing up. You don’t get to see that people really have to work hard to become as good as they are. So, for me seeing that as a young age as I’ve grown up, has shown me that I have to work just as hard to get to that level.”

Even before he reached high school, Hurts would tag along to practices with his father and sometimes jump into drills. “I was born into this stuff because of my dad,” he said in a 2016 interview with the Associated Press. I’m happy it happened that way.”

Both have started their NFL careers during a time when players have become more outspoken about racism and social justice and pushed the league to take a stand. Hurts’ former teammate, Malcom Jenkins, co-founded The Players Coalition in 2017 to improve social justice and racial equality. Hurts wears a Black Lives Matter decal on the back of his helmet and has used his platform to speak out against gun violence. He’s also the first Super Bowl quarterback to be represented by a Black woman agent.

In the days after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Mahomes and other NFL players recorded a powerful video calling on the NFL to “condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black people” and “admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting.”

Mahomes followed up the video by starting a voter registration project in Kansas City and joined LeBron James’ More Than A Vote to educate, energize and protect Black voters.
Both quarterbacks are keenly aware of the significance of their achievement.

“It is history. It’s come a long way,” Hurts said, noting there have been only eight previous Black quarterbacks to play in a Super Bowl. “To be the first for something is pretty cool. I know it’ll be a good one,”

If the Chiefs win next Sunday, Mahomes will achieve another milestone: the first Black starting quarterback to earn multiple Lombardi Trophies.

“I’ve learned more and more about the history of Black quarterbacks since I’ve been in this league and the guys that came before me and Jalen set the stage for this,” Mahomes said Thursday. “I’m glad we can set the stage for kids that are coming up now.”

Marc Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League.

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