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Review: ‘Rise of the Black Quarterback’

This new book by Jason Reid is a solid account of the history of racial injustice in the NFL.

Denver Broncos vs Oakland Raiders Set Number: X13648 TK1 R6 F17

Rise of the Black Quarterback: What it means for America by Jason Reid is a solid account of racial injustice in the NFL from the early days of its founding through Fritz Pollard, Marlin Briscoe, Doug Williams, and Warren Moon to the rise of Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes.

I first became interested in this book, because I knew that it would extensively feature Marlin Briscoe and the Denver Broncos. Unfortunately, shortly after receiving an advance copy of the book, Marlin passed away.

What’s striking about this book is the litany of little things that people did to ensure that the thumb racial inequality was firmly pressed upon what the book calls “thinking man positions,” inside linebacker and quarterback. What’s lacking is a full-throated indictment of the luminaries that both actively and passively promoted racist policies. While the book touches on the Mara family of the Giants and George Halas of the Bears in particular, their racist acts are almost casually noted more as part of the NFL’s established culture of racism than as propagators of that culture.

When it came to Marlin Briscoe and the Denver Broncos, head coach Lou Saban has been given a pass by people who have written the history over the years. What’s telling in the book is how Saban supposedly stood behind his record-setting quarterback during the season and then coldly turned his back on Briscoe once the season had concluded, secretly excluding him from quarterback meetings held during the offseason.

...but it doesn’t stop there. When Marlin signed with the Buffalo Bills as a wide receiver, he was again chased away when Lou Saban later came to be head coach there in the 1972 season. Further, Saban again extinguished the career of another black quarterback, James “Shack” Harris who was the first black quarterback to start a season opener. At the age of 25, Harris would not be offered another starting gig.

What’s amazing to me is that in the Broncos History DVD from 2006, the DVD incorrectly states that Briscoe started the season at quarterback, when he actually became the quarterback in game 3, infringing on James Harris’ accomplishment. What even more upsetting is that Lou Saban himself gets to detail the narrative on what happened with Briscoe, calling him electrifying and impressive... all the while knowing he did Briscoe dirty not because of the caliber of his play, but for the color of his skin.

...and he did it more than once.

It’s this kind of reprehensible handling of historical facts that I wish Reid’s book would spend more time on. Identifying and calling out the racism for exactly what it was under the light historical awareness. However, I have to say that the historical accounts of black players is absolutely riveting. Reid’s way with words and storytelling are worth the price of the book in and of itself.

As a Broncos fan, the fawning over Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson get to be a little tedious, but I can imagine if I was a fan of the Ravens or the Chiefs, I might feel differently. When it comes to discussion of Washington quarterback Doug Williams and the Oilers/Seahawks Warren Moon, I have to say that Reid does a masterful job in putting the reader into the grandstand to witness their moments.

Rise of the Black Quarterback gets released on Tuesday, August 2. I would recommend this for any football fan that wants to better understand why things are the way they are and why efforts need to continually be made to address overt and passive racism in professional sports.