It's been changing — slowly — but for decades NFL quarterbacks were almost exclusively white, by design. Fairly or unfairly, they were painted as their respective teams' CEO, an extension of the owner class and head coaches.
Maybe some of them wanted to speak up for things like human rights, civil rights and equality, but if they were more concerned with keeping their wealthy, white team owner happy, they kept quiet. The NFL's overlords aren't exactly known for being activists. For looser tax codes, maybe, but certainly not for things that concern a person's basic dignity.
And those quarterbacks might have been doing the most American thing of all: looking out only for themselves and their pockets. If you take a stand, even on something that should be tepid like "my Black teammates shouldn't have to worry about being pulled over by police simply because they drive an expensive car," you might anger someone, somewhere, and not make as much money in a playing or endorsement contract. Can't have that.
In other sports, it wasn't just white players who were tight-lipped. The highest-profile NBA players of the 1980s and 1990s weren't speaking up either, not pushing against blatantly racist drug laws or other unjust structures decimating many of the same neighborhoods where they'd crafted their games. As professional sports contracts began to skyrocket, the days of athletes like Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and others making the most of their platform seemed over.
But just as LeBron James has helped usher in a new era of superstar NBA players not just shutting up and playing ball, we can only hope that Joe Burrow will do the same for NFL quarterbacks, especially the ones that look like him.
Burrow has gained legions of fans in recent years for his play, and that's warranted. He has a preternatural cool on the field and seems unfazed by the pressure of his position.
But the way he's approached things away from the field is almost remarkable, especially given his peers' silence.
This week, Burrow did what few other male athletes have done since the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, which effectively ended the Constitutional right to abortion — he offered support, in the form of an Instagram story post. It wasn't the grandest gesture and it appears Burrow didn't use the complete original writing he'd reposted, but in this situation, doing anything was still a lot more than what his contemporaries have done.
And this was just the latest example.
Earlier this month, speaking with reporters at Bengals minicamp, he said what a majority of Americans believe: that at minimum, it should be much harder than it currently is to get a weapon like an AR rifle, used in mass casualty events like the ones in Buffalo, N.Y. and Uvalde, Texas in May.
Even in 2020, before he took a training camp snap, Burrow gave a sense that he'd be different.
In the days after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020 and a supposed national racial reckoning was beginning, he tweeted a clear, concise message: "The black community needs our help. They have been unheard for far too long. Open your ears, listen and speak. This isn't politics. This is human rights."
Burrow further impressed his new teammates in Cincinnati when he addressed them and got emotional, remembering a high school incident in Athens, Ohio in which he says a basketball teammate was abused by opposing fans who kept shouting racial slurs. Burrow was so shaken by the experience that he vowed to always fight against that kind of behavior.
Contrast Burrow's approach around the time of Floyd's death to that of Drew Brees. The then-Saints QB had the tone-deaf gall to say that kneeling during the anthem, as first done by Colin Kaepernick to bring attention to the repeated, wanton killings of Black citizens by agents of the state, was an insult to his grandfathers, who both fought in World War II. The player backlash, particularly from his teammates, against Brees was swift and warranted.
Earlier that same year, Tom Brady showed his incredible privilege as a white man by saying he "never saw race" in the locker room where roughly 60 percent of his teammates were Black, which basically means he didn't truly see them or engage with them on any meaningful level. Brady, to his credit, made up for that comment a bit a few weeks later by signing an open letter written by the Players Coalition calling for a federal investigation into the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.
Burrow is doing and saying these things with no fear of reprisal, things that would be done by pretty much everyone in a better-functioning country, one that was truly intent on living up to its own written ideal that "all men are created equal" and wasn't seeing a not-small percentage of its citizens gobbling up misinformation on social media platforms that refuse to stem the tide.
Unlike the NFL and its banishment of Kaepernick, he isn't kowtowing to a loud and wrong minority of people who are intent on pushing this country back decades.
He hasn't signed his second contract yet, the one that will set up generations of his family. He doesn't seem to be afraid that using his platform to advocate for the rights of Black people, and those who can get pregnant, and the rights of all of us to be safe from the scourge of gun violence, will mean he doesn't become the highest-paid player in NFL history one day.
Burrow just led the Bengals to their first Super Bowl appearance in decades, and he seems poised to become one of the great stars at the position. So we have to believe that if the division-rival Cleveland Browns can hope winning will dull the fetid stench of signing Deshaun Watson once he plays, the Cincinnati brass will certainly overlook any potential issue they may have with Burrow, given he can lead the Bengals into the playoffs for years to come.
It's a low bar, but again, given the inaction of his quarterback peers, particularly the white ones, Burrow's repeated advocacy is notable. Hopefully those peers take notice and follow suit.