The explosion of young black quarterbacks with phenomenal athletic ability and passing acumen has become the rage of the N.F.L. As defenses in the league have become more athletic, offenses have made an adjustment at the sport’s most important position.
Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award last season. This year, Lamar Jackson, the second-year quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens, is the N.F.L.’s hottest star. Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans and Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys are named among the elite.
If he were alive today, Fritz Pollard, one of the new league’s first black players and its first black head coach, would be proud. As the N.F.L. celebrates 100 years, a league that barred black players for many years is now largely dependent on them.
Yet even as black players at every position have become the foundation of this multibillion dollar enterprise, their relationship with the N.F.L., from the league’s perspective, has largely been a marriage of convenience, with progress only being brought about by pressure.
Pollard, the Brown University all-American and a single-wing superstar, was on the ground floor in 1920 when the N.F.L. — first known as the American Professional Football Association — was formed, and he became a star with the Akron Pros.
Yet a so-called “gentleman’s agreement” among N.F.L. owners kept black players out of the N.F.L. from 1934 until 1946. Pollard then became a persistent thorn in the N.F.L.’s side.
Pollard had a blood feud with George Halas, the Chicago Bears founder and N.F.L. pioneer. In a 1971 interview, Pollard said that Halas “was the greatest foe of black football players.” He accused Halas of getting “the ball rolling that eventually led to the barring of blacks from professional football in 1933.”
Halas denied the claim, but the reality is that the 12-year debarment took a collective effort among N.F.L. owners that set the tone for the future of the league’s relationship with black players.
More than 70 years later, a seemingly tacit agreement among N.F.L. owners has left the free-agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick unemployed. Kaepernick, who led San Francisco to the Super Bowl in 2013, began kneeling during the playing of the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality and social and economic inequity among people of color in the United States.
The N.F.L. often pats itself on the back by noting that the league desegregated before Major League Baseball, when Kenny Washington and Woody Strode joined the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. But, even in the face of a now-settled lawsuit from Kaepernick accusing owners of colluding against him for his social justice protests, not a single owner has broken ranks to employ him.
When Strode and Washington were hired in 1946, the Rams were relocating from Cleveland to Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Coliseum, under pressure from the local N.A.A.C.P. and black newspapers, insisted that the Rams be integrated in order to use the coliseum.
That same year, the N.F.L. also faced a threat from the newly formed All American Football Conference, which began aggressively going after the talented black players the N.F.L. had intentionally ignored. The N.F.L., facing the loss of what it truly valued — a competitive edge — added black players to its rosters. Even though the A.A.F.C. folded in 1949, the upstart league had compelled the N.F.L. to open the door for an influx of black talent.
More than a decade later, another rival, the American Football League, forced the N.F.L. to include a greater number of black players.
While the N.F.L. relied on quotas to control the influx of black players, the A.F.L. hired talented players whenever they could be found. The new league tapped into historically black colleges, giving players who would have been overlooked by the N.F.L. an opportunity to play professional football, even in positions that N.F.L. coaches and executives said black athletes were not intelligent enough to play.
In 1968, Tennessee State’s Eldridge Dickey became the first black quarterback to be drafted in the first round when the Oakland Raiders made him their first pick. Later that year, Marlin Briscoe, a quarterback at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, became the first black quarterback to start a pro football game when he was pressed into service by the Denver Broncos.
During an interview at his home in Manteca, Calif., R.C. Owens, a wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers from 1957 to 1961, told me that as more black players entered the N.F.L. with special skill sets and physical gifts, N.F.L. teams were forced to adjust. That meant hiring the best athletes and dropping, to some extent, artificial barriers that reserved specific jobs for white players.
“It became like a domino effect,” said Owens, who died in 2012. “First the running backs, then the receivers, then the defensive backs to cover them and the big fast defensive linemen and linebackers to keep up with them and big mobile lineman to block bigger faster defensive players.”
Today it would seem that the same competitive imperative has demolished the barrier for black players at quarterback, what with Mahomes and Jackson as the faces of the sport’s most glamorous position.
But it’s still easy to count, in weeks and months, how some of the N.F.L.’s power brokers initially thought Jackson unworthy, in intelligence and in skill, of the position he now dominates. The very traits at the root of Jackson’s success — his ability to read an opposing defense; the athleticism to elude the best of them all — were not so long ago in doubt by many and, by others, not considered at all.
That’s not much different from the days of Pollard, who would be disappointed by other aspects of today’s N.F.L. There are three black head coaches in the N.F.L. There is one black general manager this season among the league’s 32 teams.
In the past, equality on the field was forced by rival leagues and innovations, usually brought about by black athletes. What is the imperative to force access to positions of power and control? Morality has never been the league’s strong suit.
The N.F.L. can celebrate its amazing growth over 100 years. But when it comes to the relationship between black athletes and the executive suite, the same thinking that for a dozen years barred players who looked like Jackson remains alive and well.
William C. Rhoden, a former New York Times columnist, is a writer at large for ESPN’s The Undefeated and director of the Rhoden Fellows Initiative.