Is the NFL Sliding Backward on Race?

Josh Rosen (with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell) and Lamar Jackson at the 2018 NFL Draft at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, April 26, 2018. (Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports)
The league’s annual draft this week raised troubling questions about the way teams evaluate racial- and religious-minority prospects.

The NFL Draft is a blur of deals, gambles on 22-year-olds, and untethered speculation about whether a safety will be the next Ed Reed or the next Matt Elam. Just as baseball’s Opening Day allows every team to feel like a contender for 24 hours, so the draft allows NFL teams to contemplate where to put their future Lombardi Trophies. For one night, each team sees itself moving toward a Super Bowl title.

But the draft can also take on a more polarizing valence. Many observers have argued that two players taken in last night’s draft, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson, were the victims of systemic prejudice perpetuated by the league and its most important appendage, the football media machine. “Systemic Xism” is often deployed as a dog whistle, a coded trope, a euphemism tipping off listeners that one is hip to pop–critical race theory. But the travails of Rosen and Jackson, two of the top five quarterback prospects in the 2018 draft class, deserve a closer look.

In some ways, Josh Rosen is a bit unconventional for a Jewish American: His mother is a Quaker, he attended Catholic school, and he is descended from the famous Puritan, Thomas Cornell. In other ways, he is more conventional: He had a bar mitzvah, his Jewish father is a successful surgeon, and he chose UCLA because of its robust Jewish community. With typical good humor, Rosen took the nickname “The Chosen One.”

Last night, Rosen, whose style suits the pass-heavy play of today’s NFL, was picked by the Arizona Cardinals tenth overall. Rosen, who now has the chance to be the first great Jewish quarterback since Sid Luckman, was taken several spots lower than initially projected. This might not seem like a precipitous drop, but as a quarterback prospect, the gun-slinging Rosen was thought to be at least as polished as Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and USC’s Sam Darnold (who went first and third overall, respectively), and to be a surer bet than Wyoming’s Josh Allen (who went seventh).

The travails of Rosen and Jackson, two of the top five quarterback prospects in the 2018 draft class, deserve a closer look.

So what happened? Some argue that Rosen possessed certain personality traits that tanked his stock. He was too argumentative: He said the NCAA moniker of “student-athlete” was an oxymoron. He was too bookish: He often read on the team’s plane, and pointed out that some of his college teammates had no interest in classes. He was too political: He loudly criticized President Trump on social media. He was too rich: a white-collar quarterback raised in luxury, unlike his three blue-collar competitors. The fact that he stood out in the league’s Wonderlic general-intelligence test was rarely cited in his favor. Teams wondered if he was, in the words of one play-by-play announcer, “too smart for his own good.” Sportswriter and reliable league mouthpiece Peter King said that front-office types didn’t like Rosen and noted that many of them “have an inherent distrust of rich kids.”

At the same time, other quarterbacks were defined differently. Top pick Mayfield, like Rosen, was described as “cocky” . . . but also “charismatic,” as befits a Texan who played for Oklahoma. Darnold was sold as the prototypical All-American. And Allen, who suffered his own draft-day drop because of reported high-school tweets including racist language, was at worst a loudmouth Wyoming kid. This kind of microcosmic cultural stereotyping is in many respects grist for a media mill that demands hours of draft speculation starting the second the Super Bowl ends. But to doubt whether someone will fit into NFL culture because he’s too argumentative, too liberal, too arrogant, or too wealthy — well, I’ve heard that cluster of attributes before.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens wound up picking Lamar Jackson with the 32nd pick last night. Jackson, who will likely back up Joe Flacco during his rookie year, is a more familiar case: a black quarterback who had tremendous success in college but nevertheless drew the gimlet eye of front-office skeptics who, for whatever reason, couldn’t envision him under center. This is one of the oldest and most difficult NFL stereotypes to eradicate: the athletic black quarterback who lacks some intangible ability to play the position. In bygone decades, black quarterbacks were often shifted to other positions; recently, this has become less of an issue, and several of the league’s best quarterbacks are now African American.

But in the months leading up to the draft, the league, as if in tribute to its traditional biases, obsessed over whether Jackson would move to wide receiver — where he could better show off his “athleticism” — or whether teams could adapt their offenses to fit his “skill set.” Anyone with even a passing awareness of how stereotyping cost black prospects a shot at quarterback for decades should be jarred by how quickly that hoary old question resurfaced, and anyone who watched Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson play in college and work out before the draft might be scratching his head at the disparity.

Yet enough doubt surrounds the situations of both Rosen and Jackson to afford the NFL plenty of deniability. After all, nothing is a bigger crapshoot than choosing an NFL quarterback. The whole business is murky, and there are plenty of mysteries that complicate the picture. Scouts, general managers, coaches, and reporters have plenty of skin in the game. Teams are driven by the pressure to win; reporters by the need to predict what will happen; analysts by the mandate to deliver correct opinions with insufficient inputs. Each team that chose a quarterback or position player ahead of Rosen and Jackson likely has a raft of defensible reasons for its pick.

Sports keep score. The results on the field will bear out or disprove the decisions made during the 2018 NFL Draft. Baker Mayfield might bring the Browns glory, Josh Rosen might alienate his teammates, and Lamar Jackson might struggle to hit open receivers in the flat. But Mayfield’s cowboy moxie, Rosen’s father’s medical skills, and Jackson’s black skin will have nothing to do with it. To slyly hint or openly declare otherwise is to try and set one of the most purely meritocratic segments of American life back to a worse time — a time when the hue of his skin was seen as an indicator of future success on the field of play. The league and its credulous media mouthpieces should keep that in mind.

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