There’s an awful story that gets repeated anytime someone brings up a high NFL draft pick who turns out to be a potential bust. JaMarcus Russell, drafted first overall in 2007 to be the then Oakland Raiders’ quarterback/savior, was quickly labeled as too undisciplined to lead an NFL squad. His coaches routinely gave him DVDs to do some independent film study as homework and quizzed him on their offensive concepts. One day they handed him the NFL equivalent of a placebo, a blank DVD with no film, no concepts, no nothin’. Lo and behold, Russell returned to practice and answered questions about the DVD as if he had actually watched and digested key information provided by his coaches.
Russell lasted three awful seasons in the NFL and is widely regarded as one of the biggest busts in league history, not the least of which because the Raiders handed him a then-massive six-year, $61 million contract that included $32 million in guarantees. They got seven wins and 18 losses in return.
This is not a story about JaMarcus Russell. It is a story about another quarterback, a Black one, who was also a first-round NFL pick and who recently signed a record-setting contract extension worth $230.5 million with the Arizona Cardinals.
This is a story about why that quarterback, Kyler Murray, has, in effect, a homework clause in that giant contract requiring him to do a minimum of four hours of independent film study per week, and what it says that an NFL team would demand such a thing from any quarterback, but especially from a Black quarterback in the year 2022.
The addendum also states that Murray will not get credit if he’s not studying or watching the material while it plays on his tablet or if he’s doing something that can distract him or draw his attention elsewhere while the material is playing, such as playing video games, watching TV or browsing the internet.
Failure to meet the addendum’s requirements will mean Murray will “be deemed to be in default” of his contract, per the wording in the agreement. The addendum kicks in this season and lasts through 2028, which is when the Cardinals can pick up a club option.
Teams routinely put clauses in contracts that require players to attend offseason workouts, reach certain weight goals or other tangible goals, but it’s believed that a clause requiring a player to study more outside of team meetings is unusual, if not unprecedented.
It’s embarrassing and perplexing for a team to insist on such a clause in a contract for any starting quarterback, since independent film work is as essential to the position as playing catch. It suggests that the Cardinals don’t trust Murray, who through three years has already won triple the games Russell did in his entire career, to do the bare minimum. And that calls into question their judgment in making Murray the second-highest paid player in the NFL, behind future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers, on an annual salary basis.
Worse than that, the homework clause infantilizes Murray and recalls an era—if it ever ended—when Black quarterbacks were always questioned about their intellectual capability to play what’s considered the most mentally challenging NFL position. Black quarterbacks throughout the league’s history—or at least since the NFL finally allowed James “Shack” Harris to become the first one to start a season at the position in 1974—have had their intelligence interrogated. They’ve been routinely lauded for their athletic acumen while white QBs are celebrated as “cerebral”.
They’ve been doubted to the extent that Warren Moon, an eventual Hall of Famer, had to decamp for Canada to start his career and prove that the NFL should have drafted him at his natural position. They’ve been exiled, like Colin Kaepernick, and race-normed, like the hundreds of other Black retired players who had their baseline intelligence assumed to be lower than white players so the NFL could give them less money in a concussion settlement.
None of that makes the Cardinals organization racist for requiring Murray to account for the work he puts in to improve the mental aspects of his game. It’d make little sense to offer a wealthy, long-term extension to a player they could easily allow to walk in free agency after next season, or one they could have not drafted at all.
But the team surely could have done better than this. They didn’t need to expose their own franchise QB to the speculation that he might like playing Madden more than playing real football or that the team’s execs were holding their nose while extending a guy whose commitment to his craft they thought stunk.
At minimum, they should have known better than to treat the face of their franchise, a Black face in the brightest spotlight in sports, like he was remedial in a world that’s always been ready to dismiss talent like his.