For the first time in Super Bowl history, two Black starting quarterbacks — Patrick Mahomes for the Kansas City Chiefs and Jalen Hurts for the Philadelphia Eagles — will face off in the most watched annual sporting event worldwide. Last year, over 200 million people tuned in, including two-thirds of all Americans. To add to this historic moment, Hurts’s agent, Nicole Lynn, is the first Black woman to represent a quarterback in the Super Bowl, and Autumn Lockwood, assistant sports performance coach for the Eagles, will be the first Black woman to coach in the big game.
Mahomes and Hurts will become only the eighth and ninth Black quarterbacks to play in the Super Bowl — Doug Williams was the first to win one in 1988.
The matchup between Mahomes and Hurts has been decades in the making, as Black players, including these quarterbacks, have worked to bust century-old myths surrounding Black people, athletes, intellect and leadership that have historically prevented Black players from getting a chance at quarterback in the NFL.
To justify slavery and the transatlantic trade of enslaved people, Europeans — and later Americans — asserted that Black people were built for labor. Proponents of slavery argued that biological differences between Black and White Americans necessitated separation and social control. They also developed ideas about the intellectual superiority of Whites, as well as their supposed greater fitness to lead.
As early as the late 19th century, these ideas began to affect the burgeoning world of sports. Historian Dave Wiggins’s work reveals how fans and coaches, as well as athletes, trainers, cultural anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, physical educators, biologists, medical doctors and, later, sportscasters claimed that Black and White athletes had innate differences that made them better suited for different roles in sports. Many argued that Black people were athletically superior and intellectually inferior.
These beliefs shaped the development of football in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and later the NFL, which formed in 1920. Initially, the league had a few Black players, but by 1933, they were banned, with no Black players allowed in the NFL between 1933 and 1946. While the league began integrating in the 1940s, it was not until 1962 that the last team, what is now the Washington Commanders, desegregated.
Yet, integration did not mean equal opportunity for Black and White players. Instead, the racist ideas about innate differences between the races drove the belief that Black and White players were best suited for different positions — a practice known as “racial stacking.” White owners and coaches pushed Black players away from “down the middle positions” like quarterback, center and inside linebacker because of the belief that such spots were too cerebral for Black men.
This practice meant that as talented Black quarterbacks moved up through the ranks of youth and college football (and into the pros), they got funneled toward playing running back or cornerback, which were perceived as better suited for their presumed “natural athletic abilities.”
It is no accident then that Marlin Briscoe, the first Black quarterback in the American Football League — today’s AFC — was drafted as a cornerback in 1968. Briscoe got his opportunity to play quarterback only by threatening to walk away if he did not get a tryout.
But even as Briscoe shattered the color barrier, it didn’t eliminate the perceptions that made it hard for other Black players to follow him. In 1971, Sports Illustrated ran an article entitled, “An Assessment of ‘Black is Best.’” Author Martin Kane suggested there was a growing body of scientific “opinion” that physical differences accounted for Black excellence in sports, reinforcing the misconception that race was a biological reality not something socially constructed. Harry Edwards, a former Black athlete and the first sociologist to formally study the intersections of race, sports and society, wrote a scathing dissent, noting that societal conditions — not biology — accounted for the Black community’s interest in and skill at certain sports.
Despite the facts being on Edwards’s side, the harmful ideas about biological difference persisted, leading to disparate treatment of Black quarterbacks. While a handful of Black players got an opportunity to play the position in the early 1970s, none started regularly until James Harris in 1974. Like Briscoe, Harris had been told that if he switched positions, his playing time would improve. Yet, Harris persevered, and in his first year as starter, he was named Pro Bowl MVP. Even so, the four Black quarterbacks who followed in the 1970s had limited playing time and few starts.
Then came Warren Moon — a college phenom at the University of Washington who led the Huskies to a Rose Bowl victory in 1978. Despite being the Rose Bowl MVP and Pacific-8 Conference player of the year, he went undrafted in 1978. He was asked to play receiver or defensive back, but he refused, instead entering the Canadian Football League to play quarterback. Moon was dominant during five seasons in the CFL, finally leading to an NFL opportunity in 1984. By 1990, Moon led the NFL in passing yards and was chosen Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year. He is the only Black quarterback inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But despite these achievements, in 1988 — the same year Doug Williams quarterbacked Washington to a Super Bowl victory — CBS announcer “Jimmy the Greek” Snyder claimed that Black athletes had a physical advantage dating to slavery because of “longer thighs.”
A full 15 years later, in 2003, conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, doing a stint as a football commentator for ESPN, asserted that Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was celebrated only because he was Black, not because of his skills — despite being in the middle of a run of four straight NFC title game appearances.
While Snyder and Limbaugh lost their jobs over these remarks, the perpetuation of the stereotypes about Black quarterbacks persisted. In a study of descriptions of NFL quarterback prospects between 1998 and 2007, sociologist Jay Coakley found that sports media referred almost exclusively to Black quarterbacks’ physical abilities and White quarterbacks’ intellectual prowess.
This may explain why despite NFL players being predominantly Black in 2007, only 18 of the league’s 96 quarterbacks were Black.
Even as the number of Black quarterbacks has increased, the myth that race — not talent, hard work and good decision-making — determines NFL players’ skills persists. In 2019 — the first year the league’s reigning MVP, first overall draft pick and immediate past MVP were all Black — San Francisco 49ers radio analyst Tim Ryan remarked that Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was good at fake handoffs only because his Black skin and uniform made him impossible to see.
Such blatantly racist remarks about Black players reveal just how durable the myth is that Black quarterbacks cannot be exceptional because of both talent and decision-making. This perception reinforces the belief in the need for White leaders in the sport, which has contributed to the lack of Black coaches, general managers and quarterbacks in the league.
This brings us to the meaning of Super Bowl LVII. The game offers an opportunity to see sports as a stage for examining our beliefs and putting them in their proper historical and cultural context. In this case, it is a stark reminder of how the legacies of slavery and the racist ideas underpinning it continue to affect American society.
Black quarterbacks have been busting myths and breaking through the color line for generations. But now, as the only quarterbacks on the field in the world’s biggest game, Mahomes and Hurts are forcing the world to reckon with this mythology on their own terms. There will be no comparison Sunday night between a Black and White quarterback. This weekend, they and their talent stand alone.
And the attention getting paid to the historic moment can amplify the conversation about why it took until 2023 to get here. It will hopefully draw attention to the hurdles placed in front of Black quarterbacks, historically and in the present. That story can help fans better understand how slavery — and the noxious, racist ideas that came with it — still affect how we see race, sports and leadership in the 21st century. If this happens, regardless of which team wins, this Super Bowl will be a victory for all who watch it.