Evaluating NFL quarterback prospects is arguably the most difficult and risky undertaking in sports. It has been the foundation of many coaches and executives being voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and a cause for far more having been fired.
The often used illusory term post-racial has been misapplied—this writer is guilty as charged—when referring to organizations’ assessment of Black QBs. America is not, nor likely ever will be, in post-racial social and economic conditions. The NFL seemingly isn’t there considering some of the implicit signals being communicated about Justin Fields.
The 22-year-old former Ohio State star, who began his college career at the University of Georgia before transferring after his freshman year, firmly established himself as the second best player at his position over the past two college football seasons. He led OSU to the Bowl Championship Series title game this past January against Clemson, where he demonstrably outperformed his QB counterpart, Trevor Lawrence, the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in next Thursday’s NFL Draft.
The prior season, Fields, from Kennesaw, Georgia, located in the Metro-Atlanta area, was a driving force behind the Buckeyes reaching the BCS semifinals. At 6-3 and roughly 230 pounds, Fields possess all the physical characteristics NFL coaches and general managers crave in a quarterback. He has a powerful arm, excellent accuracy, elite athleticism, toughness, admirable leadership skills, and the mental acumen to absorb voluminous playbooks and process and apply information instantaneously.
Yet, in the run-up to the draft, long-held stereotypes historically used to characterize Black quarterbacks have emerged to cast doubt on Fields’ worthiness not just to be the second QB selected, but whether he should be taken ahead of several other of his far less accomplished peers. ESPN football analyst Dan Orlovsky amplified those misconceptions late last month when commenting on Fields during an interview on a show hosted by retired NFL player Pat McAfee.
“One, I have heard that he is a last-guy-in, first-guy-out type of quarterback,” said Orlovsky, who played QB in the NFL from 2005 to 2017, appearing in 26 games with 12 starts.
“Like, not the maniacal work ethic. I’ve even heard it compared to Justin Herbert, where it was like, dude, when [Los Angeles Chargers quarterback] Justin Herbert showed up, he was like a psychopath when it came to working…for the draft. Or even at school, like, ‘Give me more, I want to work non-stop.’ And I’ve heard that there are issues with Justin Fields’ work ethic.”
There was widespread reaction to Orlovsky’s unsubstantiated second-hand assertion. On March 31, the NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks, a Black man, tweeted, “It always appears that certain QBs are labeled as lazy or lacking a great work ethic while others are lauded for their IQ & mental capacities. It would be nice if we wouldn’t routinely affix stereotypes to ONLY Black QBs. Non-Black QBs NEVER get these labels on TV. Weird, right?”
The New York Jets hold the second pick in the draft and the general consensus among close NFL observers is they are locked in on taking BYU quarterback Zach Wilson, who was well behind Fields as a potential high pick entering the college football season. So was Alabama’s Mac Jones and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, the latter who is also Black. All have been rumored to be ahead of Fields now in the view of some teams considering drafting a quarterback.
It’s a case of history repeating itself again and again.