In the lead-up to a thrilling Super Bowl, it was noted this was the first time two Black starting quarterbacks faced each other. While that shows commendable progress, the NFL—and all of us—still must deal with the ongoing legacy and current impacts of racism.
First, the quarterbacks. The Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts are fantastic, smart, athletic players, able to pull off stunning physical feats and also manage and adjust to the hyper-complex offenses and defenses now standard in football.
Both men know how overdue this opportunity was. In the New York Times
, Mahomes named previous Black QBs who struggled for playing time, but also noted “the quarterbacks that battled and didn’t get their chances.”
The Times’ story details how for decades, talented Black athletes, perfectly capable of handling both the athletic and management tasks of quarterbacking, were steered to other positions on the field. Coaches, owners, team management, and white fans were severely prejudiced against Black quarterbacks.
The race-based exclusion of capable people has damaged not only sports, but virtually every aspect of our economy and society. Economist Lisa Cook, now a Federal Reserve Board Governor, found that anti-Black violence reduced patents from Black inventors “by more than 15% annually between 1892 and 1940,” with measurable economic losses not only to those inventors, but to the American economy. Historian Ira Katznelson details in his book, When Affirmative Action Was White, how WW II Black military veterans were denied the full higher education benefits of the G.I. Bill.
Such racially-based deficits and losses aren’t just history. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) has projected a substantial “deficit of between 37,800 and 124,000” non-white physicians by 2034, which “could worsen the already dire racial and ethnic disparities in outcomes such as infant and maternal mortality, obesity, and life expectancy.” There are many, many other examples of continuing racial discrimination and exclusion.
The NFL itself doesn’t have to look very far. Consider its lack of Black head coaches. When the current season began, there were only three Black head coaches of the 32 NFL teams. That’s less than 10% in a league where nearly 70% of the players are Black.
Football is doing some messaging to decry racism. Players can put slogans on their helmets, and teams can mark end zones with statements like “End Racism” or “Black Lives Matter” (but also more ambiguous ones such as “Inspire Change”).
Such efforts are driven in part by the league’s strong union, the NFL Players Association, which also successfully fought to protect players who take a knee during the national anthem. But the player most responsible for taking a knee—talented Black quarterback Colin Kaepernick—has been shunned by teams ever since, and likely won’t ever play in the NFL again.
The NFL also now has “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the “Black national anthem,” performed at key events. And we heard a great rendition by Sheryl Lee Ralph in the first onfield performance at this Super Bowl prior to kickoff.
But even that mild gesture of inclusion has been attacked by some. Congressional Representative Lauren Boebert (R-CO), one of the House’s hyper-aggressive conservative members, “raged” on Twitter than singing “Lift Every Voice” meant the NFL is “trying to divide us…Do football, not wokeness.”
Such attitudes show us sporting success and exemplary individual performances by Black people can’t solve structurally embedded racial discrimination. That’s always been true, as shown in a great Washington Post story documenting how Black players for the Chiefs’ AFL and 1970 Super Bowl IV champions couldn’t find housing in segregated Kansas City neighborhoods.
Developer J.C. Nichols shaped much of KC’s metro housing and suburbs, and racial discrimination was central to his efforts. Like many other parts of the country, Nichols’ home purchasers had to sign covenants forbidding resale to non-whites. In many neighborhoods, they had to join homeowners’ associations that enforced the resale provisions and also rejected renting to Black tenants. (This KC history is detailed in Kevin Fox Gotham’s great book, Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development.)
The effects of these racist practices remains today, in both Kansas City and Philadelphia, and across the country. Black families across the nation couldn’t buy houses due to a wide range of formal and informal racist practices and segregated metropolitan governments and suburbs.
This damaged Black families’ ability to build intergenerational wealth and have better public education funded by suburban property taxes and housing wealth. And some recent research finds America’s large metropolitan areas are getting more segregated, not less.
It’s great to see two Black quarterbacks start and perform so well in the most important football game there is. But while noting that progress, let’s remember (as Mahomes did) all those who “didn’t get their chances” due to racism—not only in sport but in our society and economy overall. And as some racist reactions to singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at the Super Bowl underscore, we remain a long, long way from achieving equal justice.