Jason Reid, a writer for ESPN's The Undefeated, was sitting on an airplane in advance of a content meeting in Bristol for the site when it came to him that this was going to be a particularly noteworthy NFL season for black quarterbacks. What began as an initial "A-ha!" ultimately became an extended digital series on Year of the Black Quarterback, which ESPN is turning into a special on its flagship television network. The program will air this Sunday at 1pm ET on ESPN2 and re-air on ESPN at 8pm ET.
As Reid reasoned, Cam Newton and Patrick Mahomes had previously won MVP awards, and this was the first time in NFL history that two past black QB MVPs were in the league at the same time. Furthermore, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, and Dak Prescott promised to be exciting, and Kyler Murray was the first overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Nevertheless, Reid wasn't quite sure how his pitch would be received, but those anxieties went away when the idea for a season-long project was quickly approved by sports editor Matt Wong. Reid tells The Big Lead: "He paused, and he said to me, 'You know what? That's a fire idea.'"
The idea wound up being retroactively justified in spades when Jackson won MVP, Mahomes won Super Bowl MVP, and Murray won Offensive Rookie of the Year. If Jackson had not been unanimous MVP, Wilson and Watson presumably would've been the runners-up. Mahomes, Jackson, Watson, and Wilson comprised half of the quarterbacks remaining in the NFL's Divisional Round.
"This is a moment of time in the NFL where we may really be seeing the whole face of the league changing," Undefeated editor-in-chief Kevin Merida tells The Big Lead. "Black quarterbacks are redefining the position; it's the marquee position in the league and arguably the marquee position in all of professional sports. To have such an ascension by black quarterbacks has really been one of the storylines of the season. I give credit to Jason Reid for really being prescient about that, and getting us committed as a platform to put our gaze on all of the ways to talk about it."
There have at least been private murmurs questioning whether ESPN would be as committed to The Undefeated after leadership transferred from John Skipper to Jimmy Pitaro, but there have been perceptible signs from the company that indicate otherwise.
Last week, Robert Iger, CEO of ESPN's parent company Disney, tweeted support of a Kwame Alexander poem from The Undefeated that was turned into a children's book, winning a prestigious Caldecott Medal and two other American Library Association awards. (The children's space has been a big area for Undefeated; “The Fierce 44,” a book the site's staff adapted from their 2017 multimedia project called The Undefeated 44, recently made the NYT Children’s Best Sellers list.)
As big of a commitment as a year-long digital series for Year of the Black QB was from the company, it's a major elevation when it gets turned into a television special on the main ESPN channel.
"When there's buy-in from TV into an idea, it catapults it to a higher level," Reid says. "I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't excited and very pleased that the powers-that-be determined there was something behind this digital text idea and wanted to put some resources into it for TV."
Merida sees the TV special as a "capstone" to pull together a lot of the threads of what the site covered all season.
Bill Rhoden, who wrote the book on the trials and triumphs of black QBs, will examine their evolution. There will be an exploration from Josina Anderson into the rise of Lamar Jackson, whom some people before the draft did not even think was suited for the QB position. Geno Smith will share some details from his own journey. There will be coverage of Quincy Avery and George Whitfield, two coaches who have worked with many black QBs. There will be input from Warren Moon, Doug Williams, Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb, and Michael Vick.
Finally, there will be roundtable discussions that include Watson, Quincy Avery, Victor Cruz, NFL agent Kristen Campbell, as well as Anderson, Reid and Rhoden.