Would Boston Embrace a Black Quarterback the Same as Its White Ones?
Jacoby Brissett made history in Thursday night’s 27-0 rout of the Houston Texans, becoming the first black quarterback to start a game for the New England Patriots, a distinction punctuated by a 27-yard scramble for his first NFL touchdown.
Though five other black quarterbacks have cracked the Patriots roster before—most recently NFL Europe standout Rohan Davey, who served as Tom Brady’s backup between 2002 and 2004—Brissett, a 23-year-old Florida native, was the first to get the start since Billy Sullivan signed the $25,000 check establishing the franchise in 1960. (This leaves the New York Giants the league’s last remaining outlier.)
On top of four Super Bowl rings, MVP honors, and countless individual records, one of Brady’s most notable achievements has been elevating “Starting Quarterback of the New England Patriots” to the highest office in the Boston market. The Patriots are perennial top dogs in the New England Sports Survey in nearly every category. Surely Steve Grogan never generated a fraction of the same attention whenever he changed his hairstyle or let slip which parts of the produce aisle he passes over.
Succeeding an icon is a thankless task. As a third-string rookie with a torn thumb ligament that may require surgery, Brissett almost certainly won’t be the one to do it here. But more black quarterbacks are gaining a greater share of the historically white-dominated position, as the implicit bias in NFL scouting that praises black prospects for their physical prowess and white prospects for their mental faculties is increasingly challenged. So if a QB of color arrives in Foxboro and works his way to the top of the depth chart, would he be embraced the same way his white counterparts have been?
Winning isn’t always enough to ingratiate an athlete of color to Boston fans, as Bill Russell can attest. Even as he helped raise the Celtics’ first 11 banners to the Garden rafters through the ’50s and ’60s, one of basketball’s most prolific winners was the target of naked racism, most infamously when vandals ransacked his home and smeared excrement on his bed.
In fact, it’s around the Celtics that Boston’s relationship with black athletes grows the most paradoxical. The Cs under Red Auerbach were the first franchise to draft a black player in 1950, and debuted the NBA’s first all-black starting five 14 years later. (Similarly, Bruins winger Willie O’Ree became the NHL’s first black player in 1958.) With Larry Bird’s dominance in the ’80s, the Celtics—still led by Red—were regarded as a white team, a racial foil to Magic Johnson and Lakers. This notion persisted into the ’90s, when rookie Dee Brown was mistakenly arrested in Wellesley, only to dazzle in the 1991 NBA Slam Dunk Contest barely five months later. (His “No See Dee” dunk is immortalized on a ceramic tile in the Broadway T stop beneath South Boston, of all places.)
As far as the pendulum would swing one way—like a much-maligned Wall Street Journal investigation that mainly used conjecture to tie the 1993 death of team captain and Roxbury hero Reggie Lewis to cocaine use—it would swing back the other. By 2007, the Celtics were the only team in the league with an all-black starting five and a black coach in Doc Rivers. Banner 17 made Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce kings in Boston.
The Red Sox, in spite of the deplorable legacy of former owner Tom Yawkey, has produced its share of stars of color as well. With his “This is our f—ing city” speech in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, David Ortiz achieved what few athletes in any sport ever manage to do in their cities: He spoke not to or about, but for Boston. When he retires at the end of this season—a fourth ring richer, with any luck—his successor as the face of the franchise is an electrifying trio of black players in Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Xander Bogaerts.
While the Brady phenomenon is a unique one, there’s something to be said about the way a California kid managed to tap into the Boston archetype: born Catholic with an Irish last name, passed over round after round in the draft, forced into a corner by the whole damn world and punching his way out with fists bedizened with championship rings. But with a supermodel wife, a sprawling Chestnut Hill home, billboards bearing his Uggs-clad likeness, and a diet devoid of most mortal pleasures, Brady could not be more unlike the people who adore and defend him most vociferously. But no matter the differences, if Boston wants somebody to be “one of us,” it finds a way to make it so.
Writing about Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman’s postgame interview with Erin Andrews in 2014, Greg Howard said that, as a rule, a public personality can be black, talented, or arrogant, “but he can’t be any more than two of these traits at a time.” Would the same stodgy Boston sportswriters who extol the unassuming mien of the lunch-pail grit guys embrace a quarterback as flamboyant as, say, Cam Newton? If the Patriots’ black quarterback used his visibility to make a polarizing social stand as Colin Kaepernick did, how kind do you reckon the Herald’s opinion pages would be?
Four decades after the busing crisis hit its nadir, a Bill Russell statue stands not far from where Ted Landsmark was ambushed by thugs in City Hall Plaza, immortalized in Stanley Forman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, The Soiling of Old Glory. While black students aren’t being pelted with rocks in South Boston anymore, the city continues to grapple with issues of race, from unrest at Boston Latin to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruling this week that a black person here may have good reasons to run from police.
With Brady expected to play even as his Social Security checks augment his contract, it’ll be a while before a black quarterback would have the opportunity to take the reins full-time. But for now, Brissett’s solid start was, well, a start.