Excerpted from Deadspin's Big Book of Black Quarterbacks
Sportswriters and the fans who take their cues from them have this terrible habit of sorting the world into good Negroes and bad Negroes. Hank Aaron was the good Negro to Barry Bonds's bad Negro. Joe Louis was the good Negro to Muhammad Ali's bad Negro. And in the runup to this year's NFC championship, with black-quarterbacked Seattle Seahawks facing off against the black-quarterbacked San Francisco 49ers, Russell Wilson became the good Negro to Colin Kaepernick's bad Negro.
This manifested itself in all sorts of ways, but the most deliberate and potent was an infographic someone had made in which Wilson's Instagram account was compared with Kaepernick's. Wilson is seen posing with sick children at hospitals; Kaepernick is seen posing with shoes. Wilson is seen with his wife; Kaepernick is seen with a bunch of scary-looking black dudes. You get the idea.
That this was as cheapening and fundamentally dehumanizing to Wilson as it was to Kaepernick seemed not to occur to anyone. It turned Wilson into a rhetorical prop, treated him as the sum of white people's approval. He was One of the Good Ones. In a league of tatted-up drughead thugs, here was a "classy" guy you could bring into the family parlor without having to hide the children. ("Classy" is the adjective used for young good Negroes; "dignified" is used for the older ones.)
It's a shame, because there's a simple story to tell about Wilson that doesn't use him for the shitty purposes of invidious comparison. Drafted in the third round after a preposterously efficient graduate season at Wisconsin (33 touchdowns against four interceptions), the 5-foot-11 Wilson offered an interesting case study. As Slate's Josh Levin pointed out, he was Tebowishly overrated for his charisma and leadership qualities and Breesily underrated because of his height. The latter was the sort of oversight that should be familiar to Moneyball readers. "If Wilson were three inches taller," explained an NFL.com combine profile, "there would be debate at the top of the draft as to where he fits in, but look for teams to take a flier on him in late rounds to see if he can develop and outplay his size."
The numbers crowd knew Wilson was something special, though. The Football Outsiders projection for him was so rosy that the site's writers took to calling him "The Asterisk." What they understood implicitly was that height actually tells you very little about a player, particularly a player as dynamic as Wilson. He may not be tall, but he is mobile, and he uses his legs in a way that makes his stature irrelevant. He runs for yardage, of course, but he also runs to create better passing lanes for himself—sort of like Tony Romo, of all people. That's one reason he throws such a good deep ball. It's not because he's aiming through a forest of opponents; it's because he can move outside the forest entirely.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll knew what he had in Wilson, too, and he was ballsy enough to turn the offense over to him instead of prize free agent Matt Flynn. The move paid immediate dividends, and on Feb. 2, two seasons later, Russell Wilson became the second black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Wilson's story isn't about good Negro vs. bad Negro. It's about management blind spots, about how old biases prevent even credentialed experts from seeing what's actually there. In its own way, it's about discrimination, too.
Russell Wilson | 2012-2013 | Seattle Seahawks
Drafted, 3rd round (75 overall) | 32 games (32 starts) | 6,475 yards passing | 52 passing TDs | 19 INTs | 63.6 comp. % | 100.6 QB rating | 1,028 yards rushing | 5 rushing TDs | 16 fumbles
"Never will be a prototypical dropback, pocket passer, as his height always will be a limiting factor, but he has the arm, legs and smarts to grow into an effective backup in a system where he can utilize play-action, rollouts, and improv skills to make plays."—Pro Football Weekly