Those are the words tattooed on the right biceps of Browns quarterback Tyrod Taylor. They sound hopeless – too hopeless for someone who is a starting NFL quarterback.
The statement reflects the hurdles many encounter in life in general. In football, while great strides have been made, there has always been added hurdles for African-American quarterbacks.
A brief and sad history of black quarterbacks in the modern NFL
The racial history of the quarterback position is a shameful one.
In 1968 Marlin Briscoe become the first African-American to start for a major pro football league.
In 2006 Warren Moon became the first (and remains the only) African American quarterback in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In 1988 Doug Williams became the first African American quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
In 2017, Geno Smith was the first to start for the New York Giants, the last team to start a black quarterback.
Black quarterbacks today are getting opportunities, but they still face obstacles.
The pressure to switch positions
Taylor is the perfect vessel through which to view these invisible hurdles. During his senior year at Virginia Tech, he threw for 2,743 yards and 24 touchdowns, earning him ACC Player of the Year honors. Despite his success, many NFL teams suggested he switch his position to wide receiver. “One team specifically told me they would have drafted me early,” he said. “I wanted to prove I could play quarterback in this league given an opportunity.” So Taylor fell to the sixth round, where he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens.
According to a study in The Review of Black Political Economy, of black players who played quarterback in high school, 62 percent changed positions in college, while only 16 percent of white quarterbacks changed positions. Overall, 22 percent of all players switched positions. After controlling for certain factors, the study revealed that black quarterbacks were 38.5 percent more likely than white quarterbacks to change positions.
In the NFL, it’s a common practice as well. Former Browns receivers Josh Cribbs and Terrelle Pryor are on the long list of quarterbacks who switched positions upon entering the NFL. Players like Taylor and Hall-of-Famer Warren Moon were advised to switch, but they refused, at great risk to their careers.
The probability of being benched
After sitting four years behind Joe Flacco in Baltimore, Taylor got a chance to battle for a starting job in Buffalo. He won the starting job in 2015, and in 2017 he had the Bills in the heat of a playoff race, as the franchise attempted to end a 17-year playoff drought. Taylor completed 64.2 percent of his passes and had thrown 10 touchdowns and just three interceptions through the first nine games of the season. But after he struggled against the Saints, in a loss, the coaching staff benched him in favor of rookie quarterback Nathan Peterman.
“I didn’t agree with the decisions at the time. My coach knew that. My teammates knew that but at the same time it was his decision and we had to go with it,” Taylor said.
Peterman threw five picks in the first half of the following game, and Taylor returned as the starter for the remainder of the season and led the Bills to the playoffs.
According to a Journal of Sports Economicsstudy, which examined data from the 2001 to 2009 seasons, black quarterbacks are 1.98–2.46 times more likely to be benched. The study also revealed that when white quarterbacks are benched the teams show more improvement than when black quarterbacks are benched.
The problem of not being valued properly
Taylor successfully led the Bills to end the longest active playoff drought in North American pro sports. He is known for being an athletic, efficient, dual-threat quarterback. But according to Taylor, it’s his work ethic that’s the driving force behind his success. “I was a natural athlete, but I wasn’t always the best athlete, so I would think just the hard work helped me to get where I am today,” he said.
University of Colorado research suggests that black athletes are more likely to be described by their natural ability and strength while white athletes are described by their intelligence and effort. The authors of that research say that racial stereotypes in our society spill over into athletics and strongly affect perceptions of the quarterback position.
Taylor has lived all of these challenges
In spite of all this, African-American quarterbacks can and do excel in the NFL. For Taylor, that means developing an attitude that has allowed him to persevere. “Each week my goal is do whatever it takes to help the team win,” Taylor said. “Every week, it’s not going to be glamorous, for sure. But you put a lot of time and effort in every day to execute at a high level, and that’s what I focus on.”
He added, “I have a foundation. I have a great support system and a belief system that sets me up to win in any situation.”
So while the society inspired him to ink the works “built to lose,” on his right bicep, on his left bicep his inner strength and perseverance led him to tattoo the phrase, “built to win.”