Implicit bias and the NFL draft
Teams don’t recognize how unconscious attitudes about race affect which players they select
Rookies selected in the 2016 NFL draft have hit the practice fields in preparation for their first preseason games this month. The league’s scouts, meanwhile, are already preparing for next year, scouring university campuses for background information on new prospects. Trainers, tutors, even the waitress at a player’s favorite restaurant — all attract the scout’s eye as potential reservoirs of good dirt.
Despite that thorough sleuthing, though, anecdotal evidence and academic studies suggest that the league’s evaluation process is riddled with racial bias. It’s not explicit, where teams purposely treat black prospects one way and whites another. Instead, the draft is warped by implicit racial bias, as scouts and coaches evaluate players without being aware of the unconscious racial attitudes and stereotypes rummaging through their brains.
An associate director of player personnel at a Power 5 conference school who asked not to be named, provides a common example: Scouts assume that black players hail from single-parent households “unless we tell them otherwise,” he said.
“If they come in initially, and they want to know about a junior for next year,” they assume a black player has no relationship with his father, he said. About one black prospect, scouts asked, “Who should we talk to? Should we talk to his brother? Should we talk to his mom? Should we talk to his grandma? Should we talk to his high school coach?”
Should we talk to his father? That question went unasked. Yet, when dealing with a similar white prospect, scouts inquired, “Should we get both [mom and dad] in the same room at the same time? How should we approach?”
Similarly, when ascertaining potential substance abuse issues, scouts ask different questions for white and black players.
About whites, “They want to know if he’s a drinker,” he said. “How many times does he go out a week?” is a common question. They “never” ask if a white player failed drug tests.
Yet, “when they talk about a black player: ‘Has he failed any drug tests?’ ‘Is he a smoker?’ You know, things like that. Some scouts will be like, ‘We have a couple on our team and we don’t need to put another one in the locker room. That’s just going to ignite that flame again.’ ”
The associate director said he believes scouts behave “unconsciously,” discerning no racial bias in their queries. And “it’s not like it’s just white scouts saying it. It’s black scouts as well.”
Sociologist J.R. Woodward conducted a 2004 study while teaching at Montana State University that mined how publications graded college prospects. Scouts, he found, generally showered black prospects with physical accolades, whites with mental ones.
When a scout studies the game film of a black quarterback, phantoms of our racial past apparently spook him into seeing things that aren’t always there. Natural athleticism manifests itself, masking the unremarkable speed and agility that actually exist. A quarterback who excels at reading defenses somehow appears like one uncomfortable with the task.
Yet, many NFL front offices see no systemic problem.
“Exceptionally good,” said Bill Polian, retired Hall of Fame general manager for the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts, when asked to gauge how well the NFL, as a whole, drafts. “The vast majority of players in the first, second, and third rounds make teams. Some contribute more than others, but there are mitigating factors involved there. Coaching changes, system changes, injury, which is by far the biggest mitigating factor, which, to date, no one can predict.”
Phil Savage, former Cleveland Browns general manager, is only slightly less sanguine. “Overall, when you consider the fact that there are thousands upon thousands of college football players and the NFL scouts and personnel departments have the assignment to go out and identify the 250-some odd players that get picked every year and then another set of players that get signed as undrafted free agents, I would say overall they probably do a good job.” He conceded that teams have “misses every year,” but deems it inevitable “when you have human beings judging.”
Maybe that’s what explains a disaster like the 2012 draft, in which six of the top seven picks were disappointments. (The exception: Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck.) Wail for each franchise that drafted them:
Robert Griffin III, a star quarterback whose radiance dimmed after a year; Trent Richardson, a halfback who favors running into his offensive linemen rather than the holes they create; Matt Kalil, an offensive tackle who may block decently on Sunday or be an accidental accomplice in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s murder; Justin Blackmon, an indefinitely suspended wide receiver who betrayed his talent after never-ending affairs with Mary Jane and Jack Daniel’s; Morris Claiborne, a cornerback who lets mediocre receivers catch the ball, rattle his face mask with a stiff arm and waltz into the end zone; Mark Barron, a safety who prevented nothing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and is now an overpaid, second-rate linebacker.
Players, who believe that their on-field experience affords them a privileged vantage point to appraise talent, often wonder why certain prospects get selected.
“Soon as you get in the locker room, you’re like … ‘I had dudes at my college better than these fools,’ ’’ said Marcellus Wiley, a retired defensive end. “And then you get on the field and you look around, you’re like, ‘This is the best 53 dudes they could find in the world?’ And then worse than that is when you see the 11 guys that they pick to start. You’re like, ‘Huh?’ ”
Players “talk trash about the general manager,” Wiley said. “We picked him? He look sorry!”
Some biases are recognized
Building close relationships across racial lines regularly cleanses people of explicit racial animus. This commonly happens in the NFL, a league where men of varied backgrounds don one uniform to achieve a goal — hoisting the Lombardi trophy at season’s end — larger than their individual selves. NFL people appreciate that football, as an interracial experience, smooths the rough texture of prejudice.
The NFL already recognizes some biases.
“For a while, and even to a degree now, people say be leery of the wide receiver from [the University of] Florida,” said Savage. Ike Hilliard, Reidel Anthony, Jacquez Green, Travis Taylor, Jabar Gaffney, Taylor Jacobs and Chad Jackson were all Gator wideouts taken in the first or second round who left their teams’ fans with an unpleasant aftertaste.
“And so you end up grading the helmet or grading the university, when in reality you should be evaluating the individual, and that’s something we always cautioned our scouts about in terms of don’t judge that player by the school or program that he’s in,” Savage said. “You got to take each player for himself.”
This flavor of bias — for or against certain helmets, or conferences, or guys with warriorlike bodies — triggers hearty discussions in NFL front offices. The “undersized” Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, every time he pirouettes away from an embarrassed defensive end and slings a rainbow bomb into the awaiting arms of Doug Baldwin, reminds rudderless organizations forced to start a McCown brother that franchise-changing quarterback treasures can be found in nonprototypical chests.
But implicit racial bias — that triggers nothing.
Polian, asked whether he, in his decades of NFL experience, had ever heard a team mention implicit racial bias, replied, “No, but every club that I’ve ever been with has worked very hard to eliminate bias of any kind in the scouting process. We try to make the scouting process as objective as possible.”
The league, in its own report on diversity this spring exploring the frustrations facing ethnic minority coaches seeking employment, identifies implicit racial bias as a factor. But extending this thinking to explain what happens on draft day has proven elusive.
measuring the unmeasurable
Why is it so hard? In part, because objective measurements just mark the starting point in evaluating players.
Numerical indicators of speed, quickness and power correlate with success less than fans assume, said Dan Hatman, a former scout for the Philadelphia Eagles, and both the New York Giants and Jets. At the NFL level, “all of the players are hitting a certain threshold of athletic ability. And the standard deviation between the worst starting athlete in the NFL in a position group and the best starting athlete in the NFL is really not that large.
“Really the biggest difference in play is attitude, discipline, technique.”
Upon concluding that a prospect possesses the requisite athletic ability, teams evaluate his willingness to work hard, desire to be great, ability to obey rules, and intellectual aptitude to play his position. “The majority of [the misses] haven’t been because [prospects] necessarily lack talent. It’s been because they lack something inside that’s not measurable,” said John Middlekauff, a former Eagles scout.
“To maintain a long career, you got to be driven, you got to be tough. You got to like playing football,” he said. “You’d be surprised how many guys don’t like necessarily playing it.”
Many front offices employ personality profiling tests to help determine the mental characteristics of prospects, but those tools can be racially biased, too. Relying on them can reproduce, not solve, the problem.
Teams, in other words, seek to measure men in ways that often defy easy measurement. And implicit bias, sneaky and ever lurking beneath the surface, can intrude into these subjective contexts.
The scouts’ perspective
Hatman said bias “influences every level of the NFL, much like it influences all of sport, and all of HR in hiring for any industry.”
Scouts encounter so many instances where racial stereotypes have been confirmed, they develop mental shortcuts associating blacks with an unstable upbringing and possible marijuana use and whites with partying and alcohol. And if scouts conclude skin color predicts behavioral traits, they could also conclude it predicts playing ability.
“I think overall from what I perceive is that scouts assume that black athletes are better than white athletes,” Hatman said. “You don’t see any white corners, very few white safeties, very few white running backs. But at the same time, you don’t see a whole lot of black quarterbacks that scouts get excited about for the long-term. They’re always pigeonholed as the athletic running type.”
Scouts are implored to scout what they see. “The good organizations value the game film over everything because that’s who you are as a player,” Middlekauff said.
Like everyone, however, they also see skin color.
“It just flows off the tongue,” said the Power 5 administrator, referring to biased questioning. “[Scouts] don’t mean anything by it. There’s nothing personal behind the questions itself. It’s just naturally what they’ve always ran across. It’s like if somebody says ‘2 plus 2 is 4’ and one day somebody tells you ‘2 plus 2 is 2.’ They don’t know any different. They’ve always been told it was four when they’re dealing with a black player.”
These scouts aren’t bigots. They’re Americans.
They are all of us.
Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland, at the 2012 Scouting Combine, shamefully interrogated Dez Bryant about whether his mother once prostituted. (He later apologized.) One squad in 2015 asked Detroit Lions running back Ameer Abdullah if he belonged to the Nation of Islam, his brother and agent Muhammad revealed.
Equally insulting, teams view black prospects through a lens of criminality.
Ex-Arizona Cardinal running back Chris “Beanie” Wells, as a senior in high school, endured a family tragedy. His godbrother was killed by a friend over marijuana or money. The cause was so trivial that Wells can’t recall what exactly motivated the senseless murder.
Wells was asked about it during his 15-minute combine interview with the Cleveland Browns. “And they were going deep into the situation that I had never made public,” he said.
Wells figured the Browns sought to know if a murder he had nothing to do with cast a shadow on his character. “That’s the feeling I got from that. They were [trying to] decipher if I had anything to do with that type of lifestyle that led to him getting killed.”
George Kokinis, the former Browns general manager and now a senior personnel assistant with the Ravens, said through a Ravens spokesman that he doesn’t have notes from the Wells interview and doesn’t want to misrepresent what occurred.
Sociology professors Mikaela J. Dufur of Brigham Young University, and Seth L. Feinberg, of Western Washington University, interviewed 43 prospects who attended the combine from 1994 to 2004 for their study, Race and the NFL Draft. Their research vindicated Wells’ feelings.
“Even in an industry where minority workers sometimes appear to be favored for highly desirable jobs,” the two concluded, “employers may still fall prey to symbolic discrimination, relying on deeply embedded stereotypes about minority groups during the interview process.”
Black prospects, their evidence showed, sat in interview rooms as their relatives’ criminal behavior was thrown in their faces. Teams asked black prospects how many of their relatives were imprisoned. Upon unearthing a criminal in the family, teams treated prospects as though the relative’s misdeeds negatively reflected on them.
One player with an imprisoned uncle was asked: “When he gets out of prison, do you plan to have him live with you?” The underlying thinking, Dufur reported, was that “We don’t want to end up in the newspaper because your uncle [went] to jail.”
In an interview, Dufur said she believes teams think, “We have to protect our product which is our team. It’s not our fault if our observation leads us to believe that you would have criminals in your family. But if people won’t buy your jersey because they think your relatives have done something, bad then we can’t afford to draft you.”
Teams even quizzed black prospects’ girlfriends on whether their mates abused them. “Just as police officers’ internalization of stereotypes concerning dangerousness and criminal inclinations leads to greater suspicion and surveillance of African American citizens,” Dufur and Feinberg wrote, “employers in the NFL appear to be using similar racialized reasoning to more heavily scrutinize African American athletes.”
Whites reported no such incidents. “At most, a white player might be asked, ‘How is your dad? I know your dad. I played with him back in the day,’ ” Dufur recalled.
Polynesian prospects suffered through uncomfortable questions too, often about the size of their families. “Pacific Islander players were asked, ‘How many are you bringing with you?’ ” Dufur said. “The subtext was that their big families would distract their attention from the job.”
Yet teams failed to realize, noted Jesse Sapolu, ex-San Francisco 49er guard and native Samoan, that “with the way we were brought up, those family members will remind those players that the family name is very, very important, you know?” The family tells the prospect not to “do anything to screw it up.”
“I think it’s very fair,” Dufur said, to attribute the findings of the study that she and Feinberg conducted to implicit racial bias.
Black versus Black
In the draft, “The real choices in most cases aren’t black player A versus white player B,” sports agent Leigh Steinberg said. “They’re black player A versus black player B.”
Many skeptics will allow that perhaps implicit racial bias works against white players. But how can it be blemishing the appraisal of black prospects when the league is 68 percent black? The answer lies in Steinberg’s formulation.
Black players from more impoverished, or “blacker” backgrounds receive the “mentally tough” label. Black players from middle-class, two-parent families, on the other hand, supposedly lack the passion and hunger of their poorer counterparts.
“The guy that comes from the dysfunction may be the preferred guy [over] the two-parent family household guy because Sunday is all dysfunction,” said football agent Jerome Stanley. “Sunday is, ‘I think I pulled my shoulder out.’ ‘So what? Go back in.’ ”
Domonique Foxworth, columnist for The Undefeated and a former NFL cornerback, also notices this phenomenon: “That’s one place in football where some of … the negative stereotypes about black street kids surprisingly have a positive impact. Where they’re like, this kid is from this area. We already know he’s tough and he’s a competitor. He’s hungry. And he’s going to fight, like, literally he’s going to fight and figuratively fight, for everything.
“For certain positions, it’s a bonus if you’re a D-lineman or a linebacker, if you’re from a single-parent, poor area,” he said. But, “It probably counts against you if you’re a black quarterback.”
“Decision makers love [the player comparison],” Dan Hatman said, “because it makes them feel good. When someone comes in and they can point to a player that was either successful or not, they streamline communication.”
Talent evaluators, nevertheless, stretch to make same-race prospect comparisons rather than employing more fitting ones that cross racial lines, further illustrating how melanin colors thinking.
“I can very easily have a black player and a white player who have the exact same skill set and mental makeup. It’s plausible,” Hatman said. “But we don’t [make cross-racial comparisons] because it’s not where our mind goes to consistently. So this is why I don’t like comps, because they fail to produce the result that you’re looking for.”
Corey Chavous, former NFL defensive back and head of the drafting publication Draft Nasty, said scouts can become lazy and rely on same-race comparisons if they fail to pay attention to the specific strengths and weaknesses of a prospect.
This happened with Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa.
Bosa, the San Diego Chargers’ selection with the third pick in this year’s draft, was exclusively compared to other white defensive ends, especially J.J. Watt. In an interview with ESPN.com, Bosa said he never saw the resemblance.
“When I watch him, I really don’t see myself as much,” he said. “The style, the way I play, I feel like I get the comparisons because I’m a big white dude and he’s a big white dude playing defensive line. He has a crazy motor, he’s a physical freak and, I don’t know, I guess I just look at myself different.”
Jameis Winston, likewise, drew Cam Newton comparisons early in his career at Florida State. “Only at the very end,” Hatman noted, “did I see people start talking about him in relation to Ben Roethlisberger from a comp standpoint and to me that was closer than the very early ones which were talking about the next Cam Newton, which from a skill set standpoint isn’t even close.”
Walking the plank
Foxworth, then a slightly built 5-foot-11 cornerback fresh from University of Maryland, stood in a hallway of the RCA Dome in Indianapolis during the 2005 Scouting Combine, chugging water until he vomited.
Scouts thought “I was too light,” he said. So he guzzled water before he “walked the plank.” That’s when prospects parade around a room while wearing next to no clothing. Bright lights pummel their retinas while team employees shout, “Turn around!” and “Bend over!”
Might that left tackle be too flabby? Can that running back add more muscle to his frame? Is the linebacker’s hulking upper body too heavy for his diminutive legs? Walking the plank is supposed to answer these sorts of inquiries.
Ricky Williams, former Heisman winning running back, called the ordeal “humiliating. It didn’t feel good. It was one of the worst experiences of my life, that’s for sure, because you’re reduced to basically what you looked like without your clothes by other grown men, … Especially when you have the type of career that I had [in college] and then it gets reduced to walking across the room in your underwear and getting on a scale.”
Granted, the experience unnerved white prospects, too. But they didn’t have the same historical baggage that would lead them to assign a deeper meaning to it.
Black prospects did: the slave market. “The optics of that stage is very similar to livestock or an auction block for a slave trade,” Foxworth said. “There are definitely different implications of going through that experience like that as a black person with all, essentially all white people guiding the process than it is as a white person.”
And if NFL teams are oblivious to blacks’ concerns about walking the plank, then of course the subtleties of implicit racial bias might sail over their heads.
Bias affecting whites
“If this kid were black, he’d go in the second round.”
Savage heard scouts deliver such comments about wide receiver Brandon Stokley ahead of the 1999 NFL draft. At the time, Savage headed the Baltimore Ravens scouting department. “[Stokley] shows up at the combine, and if you just did a blind test on his 40, his vertical, short shuttle, all of those things, he deserved to go higher than he did,” Savage said. “But because he was this athlete wrapped in a white package, people didn’t think he could run, didn’t think he could jump, even though the numbers say otherwise.”
Those feelings leave Stokley, a fourth-round draft pick, unsurprised. “You know, I kind of fought that all my life pretty much. When you’re a white athlete, you get overlooked. You got to prove yourself time and time again. I think that helped drive me. And I liked proving that I could be a skill position [player in football] or a point guard in basketball and be a really good player. That kind of drove me to prove people wrong because you always got those double takes at people looking twice and I liked to make sure they knew ‘Oh, my God, this guy, this white guy can play.’ ” Stokley had a 15-year career, with 2004 being his best year, amassing 68 receptions, more than 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns.
NFL talent evaluators typecast white receivers, Stokley said. “If you’re a white receiver, you’re kind of lumped into the possession, he’s-going to-be-accountable, he’s going-to-be-where-he’s-supposed-to-be receiver. You’re not the explosive, gonna-make some-big-plays-for-you guy.”
Before throwing to the deceptively fast Jordy Nelson with the Green Bay Packers, Aaron Rodgers, with the University of California Golden Bears, threw to the deceptively fast Chase Lyman.
Guess his race.
Entering the 2005 draft, Lyman said he thought he had “good size for a wideout with really good speed.” At 6-foot-4 and with a 4.46 40-yard dash time at the combine 4 1/2 months after ACL surgery, he accurately portrays his skill set. Yet, throughout his life, stereotypes hounded him.
“My entire career, and I almost have nightmares about this, I was labeled as a sure-handed, tall receiver with deceptive speed,” he said. “I never understood why I had to be deceptive. Why wasn’t I a blazer? Why wasn’t I just fast? It always bugged me.”
Lyman, sadly, re-tore his ACL shortly after being drafted, finishing his NFL career with the New Orleans Saints before it even started. Looking back, he envisions something other than racial considerations animating the slights he sustained. Maybe he’s right. Or maybe his speed truly deceived the senses, whatever that means. No matter what, however, black wideouts never encounter the hurdles he had to clear.
“I definitely think it’s harder to draft a white receiver than an African-American receiver early in the draft. That’s just the bottom line,” Stokley said. “And it’s probably vice versa for a quarterback.”
Jason Sehorn, the NFL’s last white cornerback, said race “probably” fueled teams’ initial eagerness to put him at safety. “Nobody ever told me that. But I would say that just based on the perception of what’s out there is to automatically assume, all right, he’s a safety. Big tall white kid, put him at safety.
“I just remember coming out of college [in 1994] and everybody had me projected as a free safety or safety and my [college] defensive back coach was Dennis Thurman. And Dennis was like, ‘You got to fight to play corner as long as you can. ‘Cause you can play corner at that level. As big and fast as you are, don’t let them put you at safety. They’ll just waste your talent.’
“So sure enough, I go through all the drills and do everything and I get drafted and the [New York] Giants not only have me at safety but strong safety.”
Zaven Yaralian, the Giants defensive back coach at the time, likewise considered Sehorn a cornerback. But, said Yaralian, “When we first looked at him, everybody, including George Young, our general manager, thought he was a safety.” Sehorn, upon looking at his size and athletic ability, conjured up images of a cornerback in Yaralian’s head. A safety’s instincts — the coach just never saw them.
Sehorn, in his own words, “kind of shut down mentally” when they stuck him at safety. “I didn’t want to play it. This isn’t for me. I didn’t have any desire to be a strong safety. It’s not my mentality. And so I didn’t do very well as a rookie. After that they moved me back to corner and I flourished.”
Yaralian persisted: Put Sehorn at cornerback. The team relented. Before doing so, though, someone, he said, posed a curious question. “When was the last time [the league] had a white corner?”
Race-based assumptions nearly deprived the Giants of a player who ultimately improved the defense.
“I knew the reality of it that I was a white guy playing,” said Sehorn. “But it didn’t occur to me that it was a big deal until I got to New York and the NFL.”
Hope springs eternal
Fans summon hope now by repeating familiar chants: The owner, in hiring that new coach, found the next Bill Walsh. The general manager reinvented the franchise after wooing those top free agents. The quarterback’s rigorous offseason regiment will catapult him, come September, onto the pedestal of elite signal callers.
But nothing sparks fans’ hopes like the draft and the ability of their teams to evaluate talent well.
But the NFL’s talent evaluators, with few exceptions, grew from American soil and the racial stereotypes that flourish here. We can witness the power of their implicit racial bias by whom they select on draft day, rejecting some prospects who should be on their draft boards and shielding others who should be off.
And most of them never sense the flaws in their search for diamonds that can shine on Sundays.