Throughout this week, the NFL has been dealing with the latest spate of criticism regarding the shameful lack of diversity in its coaching hires. All six coaches who have been officially hired this offseason are white and three of those six (Freddie Kitchens, Kliff Kingsbury, Adam Gase) replaced black coaches. Of the two jobs that are still technically available, one is expected to go to a coach of color. (Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores is expected to be named the next coach of the Miami Dolphins whenever New England's season ends.)
But anyone who follows the NFL knows that the coaching ranks are not the only place where the league has a relative lack of diversity. Though nearly 70 percent of the league is black, the significant majority of its quarterbacks are white. And there are still challenges associated with being a black quarterback in the NFL, including that they tend to get benched after subpar performances more quickly than their white counterparts.
There is perhaps no one in today's NFL who knows of these challenges as well as Cam Newton, so when the Baltimore Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson last year, Newton requested that Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome give his number to Jackson, so they could keep in touch about the challenges of being a black quarterback in the NFL, according to The Undefeated.
Newsome recalls being at a function with Cam Newton, the quarterback for the Carolina Panthers.
"The first thing he did was say, 'Here's my number, give it to Lamar and tell Lamar to give me a call.'"
With millennials in general, and pro athletes in particular, portrayed as totally about self, this sort of reaching out is heartening, especially from a veteran black quarterback to a rookie.
"I just wanted to be a vessel or an outlet for him," Newton said during a phone conversation. "I just know being an African-American quarterback in this league, you're facing different things than another quarterback might be facing and a lot of it is, your gift may be your curse. Your running ability may be something that people look down upon."
In the wake of Jackson's struggle-filled performance against the Los Angeles Chargers in the wild card game last week, Newton was heartened to see that the Ravens gave him a chance to play through it -- and that Jackson seemed to put things together a bit toward the end of the game.
"That happens to everybody. Pocket passers, scrambling quarterbacks," Newton said of Jackson's struggles. "What Lamar went through is a symptom of playing football in general. I respect the Ravens for not pulling him, because it's a learning process. He's a rookie. Hell, I didn't have my best games sometimes this year, and I'm going into my eighth year. You have to sit back and say, 'This happens to everybody.'"
Newton noted that the black quarterbacks who do get chances are making the most of them, and that their tendency to run with the football when things break down -- which sometimes gets criticized -- is merely representative of a player making the most of his talent, and not a sign they should be playing another position, as it was suggested by some prior to the draft that Jackson should.
"You see it time and time again," Newton said. "Whether it's Russell Wilson or RG III [Robert Griffin III] when he was with the Redskins, or myself or Jameis Winston, Deshaun Watson, a lot of guys really are holding their own and bringing their own type of style to the game, and you got to respect it. If you gave this talent to, say, a Peyton Manning or a Tom Brady, you don't think they'd be doing the same thing we're doing? Just because you can run like a halfback or like a receiver in some cases, especially in Lamar's situation, that doesn't mean you can't throw."
One of two black quarterbacks whose team is still alive in the playoffs -- Dak Prescott of the Cowboys, who is biracial -- recalled a story about an interaction with former Cowboys quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson during the pre-draft process.
Before Prescott was drafted, Wade Wilson, who was the Cowboys' quarterback coach at the time, opened Prescott's eyes to a reality he had not considered. They bumped into each other at a train station after the 2016 NFL combine.
"I'll never forget the question," Prescott said. "He asked me, 'How would you handle being a black quarterback but being the face of the Dallas Cowboys?' "
Prescott had no idea at the time that he'd be drafted by Dallas, but Wilson's question caught him off guard.
Prescott gave Wilson his standard response that he was biracial and tried not to see color and that he would hate to think he was being scrutinized because of that.
"I told him I wouldn't let it bother me because I don't see myself as one color, another color or this or that," Prescott said.
Prescott thinks the world of Wilson and in retrospect realizes that Wilson was likely giving Prescott a wake-up call. As laudable as it was for Prescott not to see color, "He was letting me know that as much as I don't see it, it's still there," Prescott said.
Prescott has a 32-16 record during three seasons as the Cowboys' starter and also holds the NFL record for most game-winning drives during a player's first three seasons, but he is still criticized quite often by both Cowboys fans and the NFL world at large. Some of that is surely due to the inconsistent nature of his play after his sparkling rookie season, but ignoring the existence of Prescott's race in the context of the discussion is obscuring the reality at play.
Prescott told The Undefeated that he's been in contact with former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who has an idea of how to get black quarterbacks and other quarterbacks of color some guidance on how to navigate their way through the league. "He actually said he's working on getting an organization or getting something together that was quarterbacks of color that represented that group," Prescott said.
Establishing relationships with common communities is almost always a good thing, and players like Prescott, Newton, Jackson, Wilson, and more being able to lean on the McNabbs and Warren Moons of the world for advice would surely be beneficial as they continue their NFL careers.