To justify slavery and the transatlantic trade of enslaved people, Europeans — and later Americans — asserted that Black people were built for labor. Proponents of slavery argued that biological differences between Black and White Americans necessitated separation and social control. They also developed ideas about the intellectual superiority of Whites, as well as their supposed greater fitness to lead.
As early as the late 19th century, these ideas began to affect the burgeoning world of sports. Historian Dave Wiggins’s work reveals how fans and coaches, as well as athletes, trainers, cultural anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, physical educators, biologists, medical doctors and, later, sportscasters claimed that Black and White athletes had innate differences that made them better suited for different roles in sports. Many argued that Black people were athletically superior and intellectually inferior.
These beliefs shaped the development of football in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and later the NFL, which formed in 1920. Initially, the league had a few Black players, but by 1933, they were banned, with no Black players allowed in the NFL between 1933 and 1946. While the league began integrating in the 1940s, it was not until 1962 that the last team, what is now the Washington Commanders, desegregated.
Yet, integration did not mean equal opportunity for Black and White players. Instead, the racist ideas about innate differences between the races drove the belief that Black and White players were best suited for different positions — a practice known as “racial stacking.” White owners and coaches pushed Black players away from “down the middle positions” like quarterback, center and inside linebacker because of the belief that such spots were too cerebral for Black men.
This practice meant that as talented Black quarterbacks moved up through the ranks of youth and college football (and into the pros), they got funneled toward playing running back or cornerback, which were perceived as better suited for their presumed “natural athletic abilities.”
It is no accident then that Marlin Briscoe, the first Black quarterback in the American Football League — today’s AFC — was drafted as a cornerback in 1968. Briscoe got his opportunity to play quarterback only by threatening to walk away if he did not get a tryout.