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Black Quarterbacks

Tony Dungy: Some announcers’ biased language perpetuates black QB stereotypes

Some, like Cris Collinsworth and Troy Aikman, know the problem and fight for clarity and balance

It just looks different: He stands back there, he stands tall, he’s looking downfield and it’s just a different way to play the position than the guys who are coming in now.”

— Fox play-by-play announcer Joe Buck describing New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady

For all the talk about an evolution of the black quarterback, the position that needs the most change might be the broadcast booth.

That’s where African-American quarterbacks are still described more for their physicality than intellect. They are rarely called “brilliant” or “cerebral” and more routinely lauded for an array of “athletic” gifts.

They are doubted.

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said he frequently heard the coded language this season from some reporters when they asked questions about the play of rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson.

“ ‘Is his style of play sustainable? Can you win with this style of play?’ ” Harbaugh said recently, reflecting on the type of questions he was asked. Jackson saved the Ravens’ season with an improvised style of play that combined dynamic running and timely passing. The day we spoke, Jackson had outdueled Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, who threw three interceptions that day. There was more talk about everything Mayfield had done well and concern about whether the Ravens could win with Jackson’s style of play.

“I’m tired of the coded language,” Harbaugh said, leaving it at that.

Tony Dungy has seen it all as player, coach, announcer

In the old days, coded language wasn’t so coded. Black quarterbacks were quizzed about their inability to read defenses. Their failures were attributed to being too eager to escape the pocket or being confused by sophisticated defenses. “Now it’s, ‘He can’t throw from the pocket.’ That’s the new way of saying it,” Tony Dungy said.

Dungy was a quarterback at the University of Minnesota. He went undrafted and, while Canada was an option, he decided to play in the NFL as a defensive back.

After being passed over several times for a head-coaching job, Dungy was named head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996; in 2007, as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, he became the first African-American to win a Super Bowl title.

As a studio host at NBC Sunday Night Football, Dungy has listened carefully to the language used to describe the play of black quarterbacks and how that language feeds into larger, age-old stereotypes.

“For a long time, we had a stereotype of what a quarterback was, and if you didn’t fit that they said, ‘This guy, he can’t be an NFL quarterback.’ It’s different now, new words and new terms. It’s a little different now, when you hear, ‘Oh, Lamar Jackson, he can’t survive running like that.’ ”

Dungy has watched the Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck play since he entered the league. Luck has a physical, freewheeling style of play, replete with running around, diving, not sliding. “Luck plays a lot like the stereotypical black quarterback, but they aren’t saying that,” Dungy said. “No one says, ‘Oh, he’s not going to survive.’ As soon as Lamar Jackson does it and doesn’t run out of bounds, they say, ‘Oh, he’s not going to survive.’ ”

Mahomes changing the game in several ways

Patrick Mahomes, who has led Kansas City to Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, poses a dilemma for the established order. Mahomes has universally been embraced this season as a harbinger of a new breed of field generals. This new breed demands new nomenclature and an enthusiastic embrace that broadcasters have been reluctant to offer.

“They don’t really know what to do with him,” Dungy said, referring to Mahomes. “He does everything that the basic, standard quarterback can do, and then he’s got this extra flair that nobody else can do. They can’t say he can’t throw from the pocket, because he does. They can’t say he doesn’t read defenses and doesn’t process the game, because he’s one of the best already in his second year.

“So they really don’t know what to say about him.”

Beginning in Week 10 of the season, Dungy began to speak of Mahomes’ intangibles as a way to counter what he saw as too great a concentration on his physical gifts.

“They say, ‘Look at how he throws across his body, look at that left-handed throw, look at that 50-yard pass,’ ” Dungy said. “You know what impresses me about Patrick Mahomes? He understands the game better than any 23-year-old I’ve ever seen. Nobody wants to say that. All the focus is on how he’s so gifted, his arm is so strong, he’s so accurate.

“He is all of that,” Dungy said, “but they really don’t want to say, ‘You know, this guy may be pretty brilliant.’ ”

Dungy coached Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and heard how Manning was described in euphoric terms virtually from the time he entered the league.

“They said he’s so mature, he’s this, he’s that. He studies,” Dungy recalled. “How much have you heard anyone say anything about Mahomes studying? I promise you, he does. He puts the time in.”

The rise of black quarterbacks may, for some, seem like a threat to the existing order, to everything an older generation once knew. Perhaps the role of some broadcasters is to provide reassurance that the old days are still here.

“Black quarterbacks are often talked about in terms of physical strength or natural ability,” said Patrick Ferrucci, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado. For the past few years, Ferrucci and his colleague have done studies of stereotypes and sports.

“White quarterbacks tend to be intelligent and give great effort. If a white quarterback succeeds, it’s because of something they controlled and worked hard at; if a black quarterback succeeds, it’s because of something that was innate.”

“There are so many studies that prove it; every single published piece of research finds the exact same thing,” he said. “It’s always a brain versus brawn dichotomy.”

What many of us find amazing is that after all these decades, the stereotypes, and the underlying racism, persist.

Ferrucci said he watched hours upon hours of broadcasts and pored over countless studies on the subject and conducted studies of his own. “There are so many studies that prove it; every single published piece of research finds the exact same thing,” he said. “It’s always a brain versus brawn dichotomy. We found that broadcasters and journalists do stereotype and use coded language to talk about quarterbacks; people also stereotype them. The coded language has an effect.”

As wave upon wave of dynamic young black quarterbacks enter the NFL — Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray just declared for the draft — the nomenclature used to describe their play will have to change. The virtually all-white fraternity of play-by-play announcers will have to change as well.

Fox Sports’ Gus Johnson, one of the few black play-by-play voices at the network level, says he makes a point of using words such as “genius” and “brilliant” when describing the play of black college quarterbacks.

Fox analyst and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman said he has heard the vocabulary around black quarterbacks — including his own — change. Aikman believes the perspective about “running quarterbacks” has changed.

“There was a time if you said, ‘This guy’s an athletic quarterback,’ it carried a negative connotation because what it implied was that he couldn’t throw from the pocket,” Aikman told me during a recent conference call. “Now if you say this guy’s a pocket passer, it almost seems that now carries a negative connotation.”

Thanks to a long line of quarterbacks, from Marlin Briscoe to Randall Cunningham to Warren Moon to Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick, so-called “athleticism” at quarterback is now the norm. “I don’t think any longer when you say, ‘Wow, this guy’s really athletic,’ I don’t think people say, ‘Oh, he can’t throw.’ ” Aikman said. “It doesn’t mean any of that, it just means he can move around.”

Aikman said he took pains to avoid using the word “athletic” in the past “because people immediately assume that this is what I’m implying.”

“I don’t feel that way anymore,” Aikman said. “I don’t feel restricted in any way in saying that, because I think that the position has changed. Teams at one time wanted the pocket passer, and I still believe that there is a place for the pocket passer. But you talk to the people around the league, they want the passer, but they also want the guy who can create.”

Cris Collinsworth has seen stereotypes at work

Broadcasters have to be aware of how their words create images and paint pictures, how they can break down stereotypes or perpetuate them. They help create and project images that confirm or challenge the perceptions of viewers, many of whom may never come in contact with African-Americans in any meaningful way.

NBC Sunday Night Football analyst Cris Collinsworth reacts during the Hall of Fame Game between the Chicago Bears and the Baltimore Ravens at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

“It’s a big, big, deal. Words are a big deal,” said NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth. Over the years, Collinsworth, who played wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals for eight seasons, has developed a reputation as an astute and insightful commentator and also as one who is fair-minded.

That extends to the language he uses to describe black quarterbacks. Collinsworth is critical but also aware of history. “I think you have to be, a little bit,” he said earlier this week by phone. “I don’t make stuff up,” he added. “I’m not going to say somebody’s a smart quarterback if they’re not a smart quarterback. I don’t care if they’re black or white or green.

“I try to bring my own history and experience into this.”

Collinsworth points to three events, among many, that informed his approach to relationships and broadcasting.

One of his teammates in Cincinnati was Jeff Blake, the quarterback who played at East Carolina. When they discussed their respective high school recruitment, Blake told Collinsworth that while he was recruited by larger schools, they all wanted him to change positions. East Carolina was the only school that would let him play quarterback.

Collinsworth’s roommate one year in Cincinnati was linebacker Joe Kelly. Kelly told Collinsworth how at least once a week he was stopped by police while driving to his home in a fashionable Cincinnati neighborhood. Collinsworth couldn’t believe it. “I said, ‘Didn’t you lose your mind?’ Didn’t you scream at the police?’ ”

Kelly explained that he rolled with the punches and went about his business.

Collinsworth recalled meeting tennis legend Arthur Ashe Jr. at Wimbledon, and somehow they discussed Ashe’s upbringing in segregated Virginia. Ashe broke several barriers, and Collinsworth wondered how he broke them: “Did you go in there and slam your fist?” he remembered asking. Ashe calmly explained that he accepted the slights and continued moving toward his goal.

As a white wide receiver in the NFL, Collinsworth got his own glimpse of what it was like to be stereotyped and pigeonholed. “Forever, everyone would describe me as a possession receiver,” he said, referring to the code word used to describe white receivers. Collinsworth actually had outstanding speed. As a high school sprinter in Florida, he was the Class 3A 100-yard dash champion.

Just as black quarterbacks were pigeonholed as “athletic,” the white wide receiver was pigeonholed as a “possession receiver.” “I was kind of like Joe Kelly: It got to where I’d say, ‘Yeah, OK, I’m a possession receiver,’ ” Collinsworth said. He even made self-depreciating jokes about his speed. “There was no use fighting.”

Being teammates with Blake and roommates with Kelly and having a conversation with Ashe informed how Collinsworth would deal with being boxed in by stereotypes.

“I’ll never understand what Arthur Ashe went through, or Jeff Blake, or Joe Kelly, but at least I’ve had the role reversal a little bit.” He added: “To some extent, and this is going to sound petty in comparison, at least I have some understanding of it as a white wide receiver.”

On Sunday, Mahomes faces veteran New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in a game some see as a passing of the torch, one generation to another, one style of play to another.

“Is this it? Is this the beginning of the end?” Fox-play-by-play announcer Joe Buck said.

More likely, it’s the extension of a new beginning.

Will Brady be described as heroic, surgical, precise, while Mahomes is called nimble, gifted and athletic?

The discussion really isn’t about quarterbacks but about how we see each other and how African-Americans are perceived and valued.

The son of one of my former colleagues was arrested inside the Yale University Library because police did not believe he belonged there.

Two black men at Starbucks waiting for a friend were humiliated and confronted by police because a Starbucks employee believed they posed a risk.

“Stereotypes are bad for society in general, no matter what we’re talking about,” Ferrucci said.

This is not simply about broadcasters describing black men playing quarterback; it’s about defeating racism, one word at a time.

Listen. Think. Speak.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.