Colin Kaepernick and the NFL's Problematic Treatment of Black Quarterbacks

Having nearly one out of four teams with a minority quarterback at the helm wasn't something we were close to five years ago – but is it progress?

Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, looks on after being benched during the game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on December 4th, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

While much of the focus on the NFL this season has been on the African-American quarterback who is not in the league, it is also important to give attention to the ones who are. As much as Colin Kaepernick deserves to be on a team based on his talent, we can safely say that if he's been blacklisted from the NFL it is not because he is black. And we can assume this because many of the players who are in the league instead of him – in spite of being worse at football – are also black.

Which is a strange way to make a point of the league's progress in integration over the last 50 years, but is nonetheless true. Even if the main thing driving the league in this direction is the undeniable fact that African-American quarterbacks can help their franchises win games and make money.

Last week, the Vikings activated Teddy Bridgewater to the 53-man roster, making him the 16th African-American active quarterback in the league, and the 18th minority QB. (It would be 20, but Bridgewater replaced Sam Bradford, who is part Cherokee, and the Texans recently put Deshaun Watson on injured reserve.) Of those 18, seven are their team's regular starter – this number was eight, up until the Bills benched Tyrod Taylor for Nathan Peterman on Wednesday.

Still, to have almost one out of four teams with a minority quarterback at the helm was not something that we were close to before five years ago, and it was unfathomable prior to 1980.

According to Deadspin's exhaustive list of every black quarterback in NFL history, the first professional African-American quarterback was Fritz Pollard in 1920, and his inclusion at that point can be extremely misleading because if anything segregation was even more prevalent in the decades that followed. The next black quarterback didn't come around until 1932, and then it would be almost 20 years until the third joined the league in 1950. Through the sixties and seventies more minority quarterbacks came into the NFL, but the biggest shift may have come through the drafting of Doug Williams at 17th overall in 1978, then seeing Williams become the first African-American quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl in 1987. Ironically, Williams won his ring with the Redskins, the last franchise in the league to integrate black players to their team.

Consider that timeline again. Williams became the first black quarterback to be drafted in the first round (and not moved to another position) in 1978. Tom Brady was born in 1977.

Another monumental thing happened during the 1978 draft, not by a player being selected, but igniting a flame from letting a future Hall of Famer get passed over by every single team in the league. Despite leading the Washington Huskies to a Rose Bowl win over Michigan months earlier, Warren Moon went undrafted because teams had a hard time placing him as anything other than a pocket passer – and they weren't ready to believe that a pocket passer could be black. While many African-American quarterbacks were moved off of the position or chosen by teams that wanted to run an option offense, it was Moon's lack of athleticism that eventually helped move the needle towards owners accepting the fact that African-Americans don't need to be the best athletes on the field in order to take the snaps under center. Moon helped change the sport based not on how exceptional his athletic gifts were, but on how "ordinary" he was as an athlete. At least relative to his skills as a passer.

It took years of playing at a high level and setting many passing records for Moon to change people's minds about the ability for a black player to sit in the pocket and throw the football; along the way countless people and programs tried to stop that progress. "Nobody ever told me, 'You're not good enough to play quarterback,'" says Moon. "It was just by their actions."

Moon was recruited by Arizona State to play quarterback, but that changed after the Sun Devils signed two white players in that same class and asked him if he'd move to defensive back. He refused and opted to play at a junior college. After proving himself at that level and transferring to Washington, winning a Rose Bowl, then going undrafted, Moon went to the Canadian Football League to again prove himself as a passer. After winning five consecutive Grey Cup championships, Moon finally signed with the Oilers and began his NFL career in 1984.

After 17 seasons, nine Pro Bowls, and nearly 50,000 passing yards, Moon, along with peers Williams and Randall Cunningham, shifted the beliefs of the many people running the show towards the progress that we've seen up to today. Moon says there was a "huge change" from when he started to when he retired in 2000.

"It was mainly in their mentality and their thinking not only with coaches but moreso with owners and general managers. That's where the decisions are made where you can do those types of things. When Doug wins a Super Bowl, Randall wins an MVP, and when I'm a Pro Bowler each and every year. I think the level of the play by the three of us showed a lot of coaches, GMs, and owners in the league that these guys can play the position at a very high level."

That progress is evident in the number of African-American quarterbacks we've seen come into the league in the last 20 years, and recent accomplishments by players like Cam Newton, who was drafted first overall in 2011 and won MVP in 2015, Robert Griffin III, who won Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012, Russell Wilson, who won a Super Bowl in 2013, Jameis Winston, who was the top overall pick in 2015, Dak Prescott, who set rookie records in 2016, and Watson, who set a record with 19 touchdown passes over his first seven NFL games. You cannot deny that African-American quarterbacks are being given the opportunity to play the position at the professional level in ways that their predecessors were not or that they are taking the game to new places.

You also cannot deny that things are still fairly uneven in some regards.

Like Taylor, for example. Taylor, who cites Moon as a childhood inspiration for playing quarterback, was drafted in the sixth round by the Ravens in 2011 and spent four years backing up Joe Flacco, the highest-paid QB in the NFL for much of that time. As he said in a recent interview with ESPN, there was never a question to Taylor that he was meant to only play one position: "All I knew since age five was quarterback," he says. "I never even thought about playing another position."

We can take that kind of attitude for granted in the 2000s, but it was a mindset created by the perseverance of players like Moon decades earlier. However, salary equality for quarterbacks of any color seems to be slow to catch up with the opportunity to be a quarterback of any color.

Taylor was well regarded around the league, with a number of teams bidding for his services when he became a free agent in 2015, but he wanted to go somewhere that he had a chance to start so he chose the Bills. He signed a three-year deal for $3.35 million total. That same year, the Texans signed Brian Hoyer to a two-year, $10 million deal with $4.75 million guaranteed. Hoyer had 17 career starts, but if anything he had just proven to be unexceptional. That would be just one example, but Houston also re-signed backup Ryan Mallett to a two-year, $7 million deal. Mallett had thrown 79 career attempts and had a passer rating of 61.0.

It may seem like a small difference, but why would there be any difference at all?

Taylor was unproven though, so playing it safe financially does make sense in general. Taylor responded by throwing 20 touchdowns and six interceptions, posting the second-highest single season passer rating in Bills history behind only the 1990 season by Jim Kelly, and was rewarded with a five-year, $90 million extension. That seems like a great, fair deal for Taylor, but it was also heavily based on an option in his contract for 2017. When Taylor posted very similar numbers but failed to lead the Bills to the playoffs in 2016, they forced him to take a paycut if he wanted to remain on the team.

Taylor is instead making $30.5 million over two years.

Who could complain about that? I would if I were Taylor given that he's being paid roughly the same per year as Mike Glennon, who signed for $15 million per season with the Bears even though he hadn't started in any of the last two years and was not of starter quality when he last opened games for the Bucs in 2014. Taylor was a two-year starter with a Pro Bowl and a very good touchdown-to-interception ratio as the focal point of the Buffalo offense. How are these two considered "equal" in contract status?

I mean, if the NFL were completely fair, he'd also be making more than Flacco. Instead, he got benched in the middle of a season in which he's thrown just three interceptions, has a passer rating of 91.4, and the Bills are over .500. It's not that benching Taylor was totally unreasonable, more that he seems to be held to a higher standard.

"It is unfair that Glennon gets to go to Chicago and make the type of money, whereas Tyrod, who has proven himself, has to take a paycut," says Moon. "That shows that things aren't completely fair around the league, but there are a lot more opportunities for African-American quarterbacks."

The same could be said for the way that white and black quarterbacks are both criticized and praised. You can find examples of this in the career comparison of Andrew Luck, the top overall pick in 2012, and Russell Wilson, the 75th overall pick that same year. The only thing that truly separated them as draft prospects was about five inches in height. Even as Wilson set passing records, records for wins by a quarterback to start a career, and a Super Bowl championship in his second season, Luck was the one still being touted as a "franchise QB," while Wilson was seen by many as a "fad"; many expressed concerns that his dual-threat ability would keep his career short due to injury.

Instead, Wilson has developed into one of the top pocket passers in the league while Luck will miss all of 2017 due to a shoulder injury that some are calling career-threatening.

"I think we're judged a little bit differently," says Moon. "Some of it is just the mentality of people. That doesn't mean that the person is a racist but they definitely put a different type of judgment on African-American quarterbacks. Especially if you're one that moves around because there's a lot of people that don't have respect for quarterbacks that move around, they think that's all they do."

It's not the only thing that Wilson does, as he is now second in the NFL in passing yards per game. That extra dimension of rushing for 271 yards puts him ahead of Brady and every other player in the league in total yards this season. While Moon helped prove African-Americans could be pocket passers, Wilson has paved the way for African-Americans to adapt into being a pocket passer for career longevity.

Something we could be seeing from the current rookie crop of quarterbacks, as well as the player who could be "the next big thing."

This year, Watson, Patrick Mahomes, and DeShone Kizer were the next three QBs off the board after Mitch Trubisky in the 2017 draft. Louisville's Lamar Jackson could be the next black quarterback to be drafted in the top 10, if not first overall. That is unless teams collectively decide that he should take his athletic gifts to another position, as many have suggested he should. It's a point of view that is not exclusive to black players – we saw many people insist that Tim Tebow should try anything other than quarterback, and others like Julian Edelman successfully made a transition to wide receiver. It's just that there are many more cases of it happening to black quarterbacks, and if it wasn't for some of them insisting that they would not – like Taylor, Michael Vick, Wilson, and Moon – who knows what kind of progress would have been made or stifled.

"I don't think you're gonna have to have a guy that has to be as stubborn as me because I think they're gonna get the opportunity," Moon says. "Whether it's in the first round or the top of the draft or fifth or sixth round I think they're gonna get that chance to play the position. I don't think you're gonna see a guy that has to go to Canada because he won't get a chance to play the QB position here. Most guys that want to play it will get that chance to play it."

Jackson and many others will indeed get a chance to continue their quarterback dreams at the next level. That's something that Moon recognizes. Because that's something that Moon, and many others, fought for. We aren't there yet, but progress is evident.