The white privilege of Chad Kelly
The former Broncos quarterback wouldn’t have made it this far in football if he were a different color
On Tuesday morning, Denver Broncos quarterback Chad Kelly was arrested for criminal trespassing after he entered the home of an Englewood, Colorado, man and woman at 1 a.m. and proceeded to sit down on the couple’s couch next to the woman, who was holding their young child. The man yelled at Kelly, who was “mumbling incoherently,” and hit the quarterback in the back with a vacuum cleaner tube before the 24-year-old left the residence and was later found in his SUV by police. Kelly was released by the Broncos on Wednesday morning, a year after the team invested a seventh-round draft pick in the former Ole Miss quarterback, possibly ending Kelly’s five-year collegiate and professional career, the latter of which might not have materialized if Kelly weren’t white.
There are certain qualities that NFL quarterbacks must check off to make it in the league. You must be accurate and capable of reading defensive coverages, possess a strong arm and pristine throwing mechanics, be a smart decision-maker, stand at least 6 feet tall and be a good team leader. If you’re a white quarterback, you can lack a few of those traits — such as mechanics and reading defenses (Tim Tebow), or accuracy and decision-making (Josh Allen) — and still be given an opportunity in the league. For African-Americans, if you’re missing more than one of those traits, you’re either quickly disposed from the league or asked to switch to a different position, as in the case of Baltimore Ravens quarterback/running back Lamar Jackson.
But for Kelly, the privilege of being both white and the nephew of Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly afforded him more opportunities and chances than any other mediocre quarterback in recent memory.
The Buffalo, New York, native was a four-star recruit coming out of high school with offers from Power 5 powerhouses Alabama, Florida State and Michigan State. He eventually signed with Clemson in 2012, but his stay was short. During the Tigers’ 2014 spring game, Kelly got into a sideline argument with his coaches over a fourth-down call. Sometime before that game, he told the coaching staff he’d quit football entirely if he weren’t named the starter (Kelly appeared in five games during the 2013 season). But after the spring game blowup, Kelly was kicked off the Clemson roster. His problems would not end there.
Kelly was arrested back in Buffalo eight months later after getting kicked out of a local restaurant, later attempting to re-enter the restaurant and then punching a bouncer after refusing to leave the restaurant a second time. According to police reports, Kelly, who had committed to Ole Miss a week before, allegedly threatened to “go to my car and get my AK-47 and spray this place.” Once police were called to the scene, Kelly “allegedly scuffled with officers while being removed from a pickup truck.” Fourteen unarmed black people have been shot and killed by police in 2018, yet threatening the deadly use of a military-grade assault rifle and wrestling with a police officer ended in 50 hours of community service and a starting job in Oxford, Mississippi.
In his first season at Ole Miss, Kelly threw for more than 4,000 yards and 31 touchdowns while leading the Rebels to a 10-3 record and a Sugar Bowl victory. The next year, though, he threw eight interceptions through just nine games before a torn anterior cruciate ligament and lateral meniscus ended his season; the Rebels were 4-5 at the time. That 2016 season was a disaster, and that was before Kelly bumrushed a Buffalo high school football field that December after opposing players issued late hits on Kelly’s younger brother.
The once-revered college prospect had regressed. An Ole Miss blog said Kelly “hasn’t been as accurate with the deep ball and has shown regression in decision making this season.” An NFL.com draft profile said he was “inconsistent working through progressions” and “lacks desired size.” Black quarterbacks with those marks, such as Braxton Miller and Terrelle Pryor, are forced to change positions.
Regardless, Broncos general manager John Elway drafted Kelly 253rd overall in the NFL draft in April 2017 based heavily on whom Kelly was related to. Elway and Jim Kelly were both a part of the vaunted 1983 draft class and have remained friends ever since. It took one call to the elder Kelly to make Elway ignore every red flag associated with the draftee. “I called his uncle, and he said, ‘He’s a good kid,’ ” Elway said after the 2017 draft. “I said, ‘OK, that’s all I need.’ I trust Jim with that.”
To various decision-makers, no matter Kelly’s immaturity or penchant for violence and possible substance abuse, he’s been viewed as a “good kid.” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney — who had a freshman named Deshaun Watson waiting in the wings, which made his decision easier — hoped Kelly would “mature and grow” after kicking him off the team. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze called him “emotional” after the high school incident.
Character issues for black quarterbacks have been overlooked in the past, most notably JaMarcus Russell, but those players had otherworldly talent that, at the time, overshadowed any negative traits. But Kelly, who beat out Paxton Lynch in the offseason and very well could have replaced a struggling Case Keenum, wasn’t always viewed as a viable NFL option. Kelly was the last pick in the draft, after all.
It took nearly two seasons for the Broncos to realize Kelly couldn’t be counted on. Meanwhile, Josh Freeman has been out of football for three years, Robert Griffin III and Lamar Jackson are parked behind an (until recently) abysmal Joe Flacco, and Colin Kaepernick, whom Elway has had multiple opportunities to acquire, has most likely already played his last down of football.