Josh Rosen sat for an interview for an ESPN The Magazine cover story and was immediately confronted with the flaws that seemingly will undo him as an NFL quarterback, perceptions he cannot control.
“You’re a cocky, jerkish, overly opinionated rich kid who’s too smart and has too many outside interests for his own good,” ESPN senior writer Sam Alipour posed to the UCLA junior.
That characterization stemmed from remarks made by former Bruins Coach Jim Mora, who claimed Rosen would not “fit” in some NFL cities because of a lack of a “blue-collar, gritty attitude.”
Mora also said Rosen could be a “franchise-changer” if coached correctly, but his mixed assessment — along with a strong pro day from Southern California’s Sam Darnold — sent Rosen slipping down most analysts’ mock drafts from the potential No. 1 overall pick to somewhere in the top 10. Some observers believe Mora’s critiques leaned on racist tropes.
“This is classic anti-Semitism,” ESPN personality Tony Kornheiser said on his podcast last week. “Absolutely classic anti-Semitism that says, ‘We don’t want this guy. This guy’s too smart.’ ”
“Wait a second,” Kornheiser continued. “Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, they’re really smart. Russell Wilson is really smart. There’s no such thing as too smart.”
Rosen is smart. He had a 4.3 GPA in high school at St. John Bosco Prep, a veritable quarterback factory outside Los Angeles. His dream school was Stanford. When he didn’t get a scholarship offer from the Cardinal, he settled for UCLA.
He is relatively well-off and well-connected. His mother is a former journalist and the great-great-granddaughter of Joseph Wharton of Penn’s business school. His father is a renowned surgeon and was on Barack Obama’s shortlist to be named surgeon general.
“I come from a wealthy, affluent, educated family,” Rosen told Sports Illustrated in 2016. “I mean, not like get-a-Lambo-for-my-16th-birthday wealthy, but like, affluent.”
He does struggle with his ego at times. He once golfed at a Trump-branded course while wearing a bandanna that read “F— Trump.” He brought an inflatable hot tub into his dorm room. The same day UCLA signed an apparel deal with Under Armour, he made headlines by complaining that college athletes couldn’t get a cut of the profits, something for which the university made him write a handwritten apology note.
“I have a superiority complex I need to get rid of,” he told SI.
And he is Jewish. He told SI he chose UCLA because there was a large Jewish community in Hollywood. He was bar-mitzvahed at age 13. He embraced the nickname “Chosen Rosen” after a stellar freshman season in college. (He did, however, tell ESPN that he’s curious about religion and sometimes attends Catholic mass.)
Those facts matter, said former offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz, who retired from the NFL in 2016. Nothing Mora said, or other talking heads have repeated, is untrue.
Schwartz said he didn’t think Mora’s remarks were anti-Semitic.
“That’s something I think my parents’ generation would say,” he said.
Former quarterbacks Jay Fiedler and Sage Rosenfels, who retired in 2005 and 2012, respectively, and also are Jewish, said they didn’t think Mora was derisive of Rosen’s faith, either.
“I think part of the narrative from Coach Mora, he did say Sam Darnold should be the No. 1 pick, and I think a lot of it is Coach Mora trying to position [Rosen] to a better situation,” Fiedler said, alluding to the notion that Cleveland, which holds the top draft choice, isn’t the most desirable spot for Rosen. “I didn’t equate that with a faith-based statement.”
NFL teams often employ Christian chaplains or pastors, and some locker rooms pray before and after games.
Prayer or Bible study groups between teammates are common. On the field, players frequently genuflect before taking the field. Signing the cross and pointing skyward are customary celebrations after big plays or touchdowns.
In those displays, Jewish players might feel a bit out-of-place, the recent Jewish NFL retirees said.
Prayer before sporting events, or outward demonstrations of faith in physical movements, are not part of Jewish tradition. And there aren’t enough Jews in the league to form a “minyan,” or the quorum necessary for Jewish group prayer.
But football at every level features aspects of Christianity, Rosenfels said. Rosen (who went to a private Catholic high school) is likely used to those customs.
Rosenfels would often use the moments during pregame prayer to calm down and focus on the task ahead. Fiedler quietly stood by his locker and rejoined the team when the message concluded.
Teammates noticed his absence, Fiedler said, but weren’t upset about it. They instead asked questions about Judaism.
“The way I handled it was being open and honest about who I was,” Fiedler said. “I don’t think anyone made any derogatory statements toward me. I never experienced any anti-Semitism. I found there to be a lot more curiosity about Judaism and customs and beliefs.”
Rosenfels said teammates and even Christian chaplains tried to make pregame rituals, including religious ones, more inclusive after they learned more about the quarterback’s faith.
That’s what confused Rosenfels, Fiedler and Schwartz the most about Mora’s comments. NFL locker rooms are surprisingly diverse. Players come from various racial, religious and economic backgrounds. Most players have interests beyond sports.
Mora, Rosenfels said, seemed to imply that intellectual curiosity and purpose-filled game planning — including asking the question, “Why?” — is somehow a bad thing.
“I think being a well-rounded person actually helps you be a good quarterback,” Rosenfels said. “If you’re so focused on just football only, I think you’re going to miss certain aspects of leadership that somebody who has interests in the world would pick up on.”
“Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, everyone thinks they’re like robots and their life is just football,” Rosenfels added. “I promise you, they have many other things they are really interested in. They just don’t discuss them that much, because people like to think their quarterback is only focused on football.”
Still, it begs the question: Why is Rosen subject to these doubts rather than Darnold or Wyoming’s Josh Allen or Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield or Louisville’s Lamar Jackson?
Kornheiser has a visceral answer — “anti-Semitism in its most blatant form,” he said — and likened the questions about Rosen to those flung at black quarterbacks once (and sometimes still) perceived to lack the “discipline” to play the position.
Even this year, analysts have questioned whether Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, can make it in the NFL as a quarterback, and it was reported that some NFL teams asked Jackson to try out as a wide receiver at the combine.
Schwartz and Rosenfels have another idea. The last thing the league wants right now is another quarterback with broad off-field interests that could be controversial.
“For sort of the old guard of the NFL, they think you should just care about football,” Rosenfels said, “when that’s never been the case in NFL history.”
Said Schwartz: “The same thing was said about Johnny Manziel, and he’s very not Jewish.”
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