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I’ve been an Eagles fan as long as I can remember. Growing up in Southwest Philly, I was taught to persist against the odds of an impoverished neighborhood — and just as importantly to my family, to persist in a community filled by unwanted Cowboys fans.
Every gameday, my dad and I would put on our gear and sit on the edge of our seats. We screamed. We laughed. We cried. Every time, no matter what, it was glorious.
But as I got older — and I’m not that old — I noticed something. Even before Colin Kapernick took a knee, and (white) football fans started wearing those “I stand for the flag and kneel for the cross” t-shirts (as if you had to choose), racism was playing out around the NFL.
As the Eagles look to stretch a record-setting season into the conference championship and beyond, let’s remember how many fans and commentators doubted Jalen Hurts, a Black quarterback with all the promise and more of the burden.
Underappreciated from the start, to ‘not better’ than a losing QB
Hurts’s early days in Philadelphia did not garner praise. Fans — who ostensibly thought Carson Wentz was still their guy — were not at all happy when the Eagles selected him in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Perhaps the highest compliment he received after his rookie year: “Diamond in the rough.”
“Jalen fell through the cracks,” said Wharton professor Kenneth Shropshire, author of several books about sports and race. “A lot of folks questioned: ‘Why him?’ But of course they did the same when Donovan [McNabb, another Black QB] was drafted, and he was arguably one of the best.”
Wentz’s jersey became a top seller right after his 2016 debut, outselling the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., Tom Brady, and Dak Prescott. Hurts jersey sales didn’t rise notably until the 2021 season, per Fanatics, and this year it ranks just No. 8 overall, despite the QB’s front-runner status for league MVP.
And sports commentators continue to discredit him.
Even after the Eagles demolished the Giants 48-22 to win the division championship earlier this month, analyst Chris Simms doubled down on the idea that he’d still rather have losing quarterback Daniel Jones on his team. “It’s not like, ‘Oh whoa, way better,’” Simms said of Hurts. “If you’re gonna ask me who I want as a passer, I’m going to say Daniel Jones.”
Simms, a former QB, must know that statistically Hurts is the better player. So why say this?
The relative rarity of Black quarterbacks is a factor, per Shropshire, who is also CEO of the Global Sports Institute and consultant to NBA, MLB, NFL, and MLS teams.
“When you have someone who comes into a role who has been a historically non-present person, and when that person gets into that position of power,” the Wharton prof said, “the standards become harder to reach.”
Today, Philly is certainly rooting for the guy. In a popularity contest between Gardner Minshew’s mustache and Hurts’ goatee, we all know the winner.
But as a community and a city, it’s our responsibility to use our passionate fan base to reverse the stigmatization placed upon Black athletes — especially NFL quarterbacks. We have to recognize that, although things might be equal on the playing field, they’re not equal off it.
A league with a pattern of bias
Racism has infused the National Football League since its early days, and the pattern continues to this day.
In 1933, George Marshall, the founder of the team that became the Washington Commanders, successfully conspired with other owners to bar Black players. Decades later, the owner of the same team would desperately resist changing the team’s name from a racial slur.
The NFL became officially racially integrated in 1946. It took the league 75 more years to ban the use of race norming, which assumes lower cognitive inabilities for Black players when it comes to providing health benefits.
The league is 70% Black when it comes to players, and zero percent Black when it comes to majority owners.
This season, only about 9% of head coaches were Black — and this is something the NFL has supposedly been addressing. In 2003, the league established the Rooney Rule, which says teams are required to interview at least one non-white candidate when hiring for head coach or general manager positions. In turn, that team receives two third-round picks in the upcoming draft.
Is the rule being followed? In name only, results suggest. And there’s a class-action lawsuit alleging the same, filed a year ago by former Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, saying execs conducted sham interviews with people of color in order to comply.
“Has work been done [in the NFL]?” said Alonzo “Zo” Jones, co-host of the podcast Broad and Forever and a writer for Sixers podcast The Rights to Ricky Sanchez. “Sure, but there is much more to be addressed.”
The gap in representation is a projection of the league’s foundational principles and discriminatory habits. And Black quarterbacks are right in the middle.
Quarterbacking while Black
As the primary play caller and ball handler, the quarterback is automatically the leader, the motivator. They are the most visible players on their team, the ultimate representatives of an all-American sport, an ideal. A superhero.
Admittedly, we bleeding-green fanatics can be proud of our team’s history of Black quarterbacks. The Eagles have previously had Randall Cunningham, Rodney Peete, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, and Vince Young calling the shots.
Still, Philly’s GOATs and others who look like them are up against a decades-old white ideals.
Although “dual threat” quarterbacks who both run and pass — an archetype Cunningham defined — get plenty of wins and touchdowns, for years they earned less than their pass-focused (white) counterparts.
Hurts isn’t getting a big payout…yet. He’ll probably move up after this MVP-caliber season, but for now NBC Sports describes Hurts’ $1 million salary as “peanuts.” Sportscasting points out he’s paid less than 14 NFL long snappers, a special teams position.
Despite that, the Houston native has balanced his excellent performance with unassailable personal leadership. He set aside $70k of his first-year salary for his little sister’s college fund and gave another $60k that year to charities.
Jalen is also known to be diligent, intentional, and precise, so much so his brother refers to him as “the robot.” This robot mentality is effective, and it’s exactly what led the Eagles so far this season.
So let’s show real love. Let’s throw Hurts’s likeness in our front windows and doors. Lets rush to the rec centers when he shows up in our neighborhoods, tossing the ball around with some kids telling them to “stay persistent.” Dap him up if we see him at the corner bar, or papi store.
NFL fans across Philadelphia and the nation must call out bias and injustice in the coaching department, owners department, and overall staff. We should also work to stop using code words like “freakish,” or comparing Black bodies to anything but what they are — talented, hard-working, amazing, human.
And right now, let’s respect Jalen Hurts for what he’s had to face, and what he’s accomplished despite it. Let’s celebrate him for being not just part of football history, but part of Black history. Go Birds.