The NFL’s racial divide
Teams don’t consciously build rosters based on race, it just ends up that way
It really seems ludicrous coming from Christian McCaffrey, one of college football’s most decorated players over the last two seasons. Yet there he was at the NFL combine last month, explaining he hasn’t gotten his due. “A lot of people don’t give me credit,” McCaffrey said, “for my skills and talent.”
Granted, McCaffrey wouldn’t be the first elite athlete to repeat the I-get-no-respect mantra for self-motivation. And on that basis alone, his words could’ve been easily dismissed. But this is what gives McCaffrey’s comments actual meaning: He’s white and a star player at a position dominated by African-Americans for decades.
McCaffrey, ironically, has faced a much higher bar than his black colleagues just to prove he belongs. That’s a bit of the burden black players have endured at several positions – most notably quarterback – throughout football history. Now that he’s on the NFL’s doorstep, McCaffrey will soon become even more of an outlier.
In professional sports’ most successful league, featured white running backs are as in vogue as helmets without face masks. After his outstanding body of work in college and impressive showing at the combine, McCaffrey is expected to become the first white tailback selected in the first round of the draft in more than 40 years, providing another example of the complex role race plays in determining who lines up where.
On the field, the modern NFL, for the most part, is a meritocracy. But the individual positions on a roster can resemble the ordered black-and-white squares of a chessboard. The story of the enduring blackness of the running back position is part of a much bigger narrative about race and football that dates to a period when African-Americans were unofficially banned from playing in the NFL. And even today, the racial composition of NFL lineups is shaped as much by societal factors as the inclination of decision-makers to stick with what has worked so well for so long.
In the past few decades, critics have decried the way black players historically were blocked from playing quarterback in the NFL – an insulting and economically disenfranchising move. However, statistics show that times are changing – albeit still way too slowly. And although the league’s percentage of African-American signal-callers increased from 18 percent to only 19 percent during a 14-year span analyzed by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, the emergence of young superstars such as Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Dak Prescott and others have proved over and over again that those anachronistic ideas about leadership and intellect are no longer applicable. Warren Moon could write a book on it. Actually, he did.
In Never Give Up on Your Dream: My Journey, Moon, the only African-American quarterback inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, chronicles the racism he encountered in the game. Most black players of his generation – and definitely those who came before Moon – could tell similar disheartening stories. Repeatedly pushed to move to another position by coaches who assumed he lacked the smarts to play the most important one in sports, Moon, believing he had the chops to lead, well, never gave up.
“You have to look at the history of pro sports in this country to understand how slowly things changed in the NFL with certain positions,” said Moon, who went undrafted out of college and received an opportunity to play quarterback in the NFL only after he obliterated passing records and won multiple championships in the Canadian Football League. “In football, the ‘thinking’ positions down the middle – quarterback, center, [inside] linebacker – were the ones that we weren’t allowed to play.
“Despite the fact that there were a lot of African-Americans playing in the National Football League in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, there was a stereotype that we weren’t capable of succeeding at certain positions. If you played those positions in college and you got drafted, you knew you were probably going to get moved in the NFL. Supposedly, we weren’t smart enough or had the leadership qualities or whatever it took. At every position, for African-Americans, conquering that myth at quarterback was so important.”
Credit Doug Williams for much of the breakthrough. The first African-American quarterback to guide a team to a Super Bowl victory, Williams, in his 1988 MVP-winning performance, took a sledgehammer to the racist myth that black players couldn’t cut it at quarterback.
“You look at the draft now, and it’s hard for people who don’t know the history to understand that we [blacks] just weren’t allowed to play any position we wanted to,” said Williams, whose transcendent performance, for many African-Americans, ranks just below Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947. “It was just understood that that’s the way it was. And that’s the way it was for a long time. So even if something happens that makes [NFL decision-makers] step back and think, ‘Hey, now wait a minute. Maybe we need to make some changes if we want to win,’ everything isn’t going to change overnight.”
Color coded up the middle
The spotlight on quarterbacks apparently hasn’t had the same effect on the center position, another up-the-middle spot traditionally reserved for those perceived as the most astute players. Despite a nearly 50-50 split along the offensive line, at center more than 81 percent of the players are white. Conversely, cornerback is the blackest position on the field: 99.4 percent of players are African-American. On defense overall, roughly 80 percent of the players are black. Switching back to offense, among running backs, the numbers are also heavily tilted toward blacks.
According to the annual racial and gender report card published by TIDES, the NFL is almost 70 percent black, and only 12.5 percent of running backs are white in the most recent year for statistics, 2014, while the inverse was true for special teams positions of kicker and punter, where 97.8 percent of players were white.
Why are those specialists overwhelmingly white? NFL insiders and observers such as former offensive lineman and football historian Michael Oriard note that many are converted soccer players, and in the United States that is a game played in the suburbs.
Which, of course, explains why McCaffrey has joked about being mistaken for a kicker. Most of the guys at those positions look like McCaffrey. His father Ed can relate. For 13 seasons in the NFL, the elder McCaffrey excelled at wide receiver, another position at which few white players line up, let alone become franchise greats. In 2003, Ed McCaffrey’s final season, only 14 percent of NFL wide receivers were white. His son enters the NFL at a time when white ballcarriers are even harder to find than competent passers of any race.
During the 2016 season, not one white player was a featured runner on any of the league’s 32 teams. In the past 31 years, only two white running backs rushed for at least 1,000 yards in a season: Craig James (1985) and Peyton Hillis (2010). Penn State’s John Cappelletti, selected 11th overall by the Los Angeles Rams in 1974, was the last white tailback taken in the opening round. McCaffrey hopes to end the drought.
As a sophomore at Stanford, he broke Barry Sanders’ NCAA single-season record for all-purpose yards. McCaffrey won player-of-the-year awards and made All-Conference and All-American teams. He proved he’s a baller. Then McCaffrey punctuated his amateur performance with an eye-opening display of speed and agility at the combine. Any conversation about the top running backs in the draft must include McCaffrey, because “he’s the same as all the best. He’s just white,” said George Whitfield, a longtime NFL quarterbacks instructor and draft observer. McCaffrey possesses versatility that any offensive coordinator worth his salt would want to use. To hear McCaffrey tell it, he’s not quite so sure. “I have a chip on my shoulder at all times,” McCaffrey said. “I’m constantly trying to prove myself.”
Sociologist Harry Edwards gets McCaffrey’s thinking. Since the 1960s, no one has been more active at the intersections of race, sports and politics than Edwards, who advises the San Francisco 49ers. The success of legendary black running backs such as Hall of Famer Jim Brown, Edwards said, has provided a draft model that NFL teams eagerly follow year after year after year.
“If you want to look at the white side of the NFL, you can look at quarterbacks, kickers, punters, centers and, to some extent, backup quarterbacks,” Edwards said. “Teams, leagues, are great imitators. If somebody is having success with a corner covering a particular type of wide receiver, everyone wants that same type of corner. If somebody’s having success with a particular center calling the offensive line blocking schemes and so forth, everybody wants that same type of center.
“It’s not that they sit there and say, ‘Oh, my God, he’s black. We don’t want him as a center.’ They see a white center coming out of Wisconsin or coming out of Ohio State or coming out of Stanford, and say, ‘Hey, that guy can call [the offensive line signals] at this level.’ It’s not that they’re excluding anybody. They’re looking to be successful, according to the pattern that has worked. This is why it gets to be so difficult to shatter tradition. You can’t just come in and show somebody that a black center is as good as a white center in order to displace that tradition. You’ve got to come in and show that he is better.”
Sorting things out
What football has, explained best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, is a sorting problem. The author of Outliers: The Story of Success and The Tipping Point, Gladwell, widely praised for his innovative approach to sociology, offers an analogy that might help to make sense of what is happening on a football field. If you lined up all of Barack Obama’s presidential predecessors on the 50-yard line at Lambeau Field, Gladwell said, you might see something similar at play. With few exceptions, American presidents have been white men, in late middle age and taller than 5-feet-10. “Viewed statistically it’s absurd,” Gladwell said. “Why would you limit your search for the most important job in the land to this tiny group of people? But it’s an incredibly common thing. We do a category selection before we do individual analysis.”
To imagine how this might work in football, the historian Oriard posited that coaches might not know who exactly they want to sign at wide receiver, but they probably have a few examples in their minds of who is the best in the role – let’s call him a prototype. Calvin Johnson, who is black, fits the bill for a deep receiver, and maybe Wes Welker, who is white, in the slot. When we make comparisons between people, race tends to be one of the factors that correlates. So during that initial sorting process, a down-field wide receiver such as Eric Decker, who’s also white, might not initially seem to fit the category that Johnson holds as prototype. And what is the NFL draft if not the league’s annual sort? These evaluations “start from a semi-rational place, but it has the effect of substituting a category for individual evaluation,” Gladwell said. “And we all do this all the time and it’s useful, but it means you leave a ton of talent on the floor.”
Overt discrimination no longer is a major factor in determining which players are drafted at certain positions. There’s too much money involved. For NFL owners, green, generally, is the color that matters most. But through the years, racism has driven many of the league’s decisions. After the NFL’s unofficial ban on black players was lifted in 1946, teams still blocked African-Americans from playing quarterback. Blacks excelled at running back – players such as Kenny Washington, a standout runner out of UCLA, were part of the league’s reintegration – and many top-notch black players entered the NFL in the 1950s and ’60s.
White running backs thrived during those eras as well, and into the 1970s and ’80s. Hall of Famers Larry Csonka and John Riggins, power backs who led their teams to Super Bowl championships, immediately come to mind. By the late 1980s, though, the game was changing. With teams putting a greater emphasis on speed out of the backfield, white running backs faded into the background. The perception was that white tailbacks in college, generally speaking, lacked the speed and athleticism of black runners. Those assumptions mean McCaffery not only has to prove himself as an individual, but he also has to overcome an idea that isn’t often spoken aloud in polite company: that black players are faster. Gladwell explained that although we tend to think in categories, occasionally an exceptional individual comes along who completely changes the selection process. In 1936, that person was Jesse Owens.
When Adolf Hitler hosted the summer Olympics that year, the prevailing ideas about race and sports were very different. With one exception: Jews were barred from the German Olympic team. Hitler hoped to use the games to showcase the very particular men and women he saw as the height of intellect and athleticism. In America, the enslavement of black people had ended, but many vestiges of that heinous system still remained with segregation. Owens not only made the U.S. Olympic team in a sport dominated by white athletes, but he won four gold medals, forever changing the prototype of a champion runner. Owens and other black athletes won 14 track and field medals in those games, despite being a small fraction of the athletes brought to Berlin.
If you look at the athletes who have set current world records in track and field, the great majority of them are of West African descent. Sportswriter David Epstein looked at this phenomenon in part of his comprehensive book, The Sports Gene, to try to determine if there is a link between ethnicity and athletic excellence. He found that it isn’t so much about the racial categories we think of today like black or white, but about where our ancestors evolved. Was it close to the equator, where humans sometimes developed the ability to cool more quickly? Was it at a high altitude? These are the conditions that affect the genes.
Epstein spoke to scientists who discussed the idea that genes that might be helpful in sports – for example, the way descendants of people who lived at a high altitude are able to quickly access oxygen in the air we breathe – are more present in some populations than other. There are genes that could be helpful in forming muscle fibers, quick-twitch responses, limb-to-torso ratio, the ability to recover quickly from a workout or improving eyesight. What ultimately gives an advantage to one person or another is a combination of these genes.
Though some genes may be more prevalent in a geographic population, this doesn’t exclude them from another group. Any athlete may be able to compensate for a lack of genetic ability through practice and skill mastery. For example, even in the NFL’s current racial landscape, white fullback-types enjoyed staying power while that position was still in vogue. Mike Alstott was featured in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offense. A four-time All-NFL selection (including to the first-team three times), Alstott ranks second on the Bucs’ all-time rushing list. In 1992, fullback Tommy Vardell, like McCaffrey a star at Stanford, became the last white running back selected in the first round. White tailbacks are still looking for another opening.
“Teams definitely know what they want, and a lot of times that means they won’t look in a different place to try to find it,” said Earnest Byner, a three-time 1,000-yard rusher who also served as a running backs coach with four NFL teams. “But there are guys out there who can run the ball and be successful, real successful, if teams look at them.”
Tackling the center disparity
During the run-up to the 2010 NFL draft, Oklahoma left tackle Trent Williams was widely considered the best offensive lineman available. Analysts were abuzz about Williams’ eye-opening performance at the combine (when a guy who’s measured at 6 feet 5, 315 pounds covers the 40-yard dash in 4.88 seconds, people tend to take notice), but his measurables were only part of the story. The versatility Williams displayed in moving from left tackle to center in his final college game – while playing well at an unfamiliar position – made him a likely top five pick. His performance was also noteworthy for another reason: There just aren’t many African-American centers in the NFL.
After selecting the All-American fourth overall, the Washington Redskins promptly assigned Williams to left tackle, where he has anchored their O-line as a perennial Pro Bowler and All-Pro performer. Williams, however, has no doubts he could have succeeded as a center. Just as many other black players could, he said.
“I really didn’t understand why everyone was making such a big deal about it,” Williams told a reporter during an interview before his rookie season with Washington. “We had some injuries and needed to move some things around. The coaches knew I could do it, so they put me there. But it’s not like there’s anything about [playing center] that only certain guys can do it. If you can play, you can play.”
Back in the day, center was among three positions – quarterback and middle linebacker were the others – that African-Americans were unofficially banned from playing in the NFL. Teams must be strong at their core to thrive, and the up-the-middle positions require a level of astuteness that blacks, the wrongheaded thinking went, fundamentally lack. Despite the fact that players are no longer diverted from playing center because of their skin color, African-Americans are underrepresented at the position, especially considering their high overall numbers in the game. At center, the league is still overwhelmingly white.
“That’s probably a holdover from the days blacks weren’t allowed to be center,” said Oriard, the former lineman and football historian who is an Oregon State liberal arts professor. “But today perhaps they’re not drawn to be center. There is this idea that you have to be smart to be center, but making those line calls isn’t all that complicated.”
In 2014, the last season for which statistics are available, blacks accounted for only 15.8 percent of players at the position. That’s an increase from 11 percent the previous season, but much lower than 26 percent in 2006 – the highest mark of the 14 years of rosters analyzed by TIDES.
Williams’ strong showing at center during Oklahoma’s 31-27 victory over Stanford in the Sun Bowl stirred speculation he could dominate at multiple positions as a pro. Essentially, a center is the quarterback of the offensive line. In most cases, he’s responsible for making pre-snap calls to set blocking assignments based on the alignment of the defense. Williams appeared to direct traffic with ease.
He could have followed in the footsteps of great black centers such as Hall of Famers Dwight Stephenson and Dermontti Dawson. They were arguably the greatest two players to ever line up in front of a quarterback regardless of race. And had Williams come out of college 25 or 30 years ago, perhaps he would have stuck at center. But times have changed.
The NFL has evolved into a passing league. As such, keeping the quarterback upright has never been more important. A left tackle protects a right-handed passer’s blind side. And when you have a left tackle as good as Williams, “you don’t mess with that,” said two-time Super Bowl winner Mike Shanahan, who drafted Williams when he coached the Redskins. “Trent is so athletic, so talented and so smart, he could play any position and play it at a Pro Bowl level. Could he be a great center or guard? Absolutely. But you win in this league with tackles.”
Which helps to explain the numbers at center. If an offensive lineman shows unique athleticism for his size, coaches say, the likelihood is he’ll be moved to the premier position along the offensive line in youth football or high school. “If you have a great left tackle, it just allows you to do so much with your football team,” Shanahan said. “That’s where you want the best to play.”
Sehorn turned a corner
Jason Sehorn is the answer to an interesting bit of NFL trivia: Who was the league’s last starting white cornerback? And Sehorn last played more than a decade ago.
Although there are white players – mostly safeties and wide receivers – capable of switching to corner in a pinch, the NFL has not had a white player listed as a primary backup at the position, let alone a first-stringer, since Sehorn retired after the 2003 season. For nine seasons, Sehorn was an oddity, not merely playing but thriving at arguably the position that requires the greatest athleticism. To Sehorn, he always fit in where it mattered most: on the field.
“Yeah, I’m a white guy, but I never really looked at it like that,” said Sehorn, now a college football analyst for ESPNU. “You just don’t think about it [having to be a certain race] as part of the job description. In the DB [defensive backs] room there were 11 of us and 10 were black. I wasn’t oblivious to it. But I just focused on playing my position.”
And initially, Sehorn had to fight to do it.
A sampling of NFL cornerbacks African-Americans have dominated the cornerback position. The last white starting cornerback was Jason Sehorn, who last played in 2003, of the New York Giants.
At the University of Southern California, Sehorn had only played corner for one season. Intending to convert him to safety, the New York Giants selected Sehorn in the second round (59th overall) of the 1994 draft. “When I got to the NFL, stereotypes set in,” he said. The leaguewide thinking is as clear today as it was when Sehorn entered the NFL: Only black guys play corner.
At safety during his rookie season, Sehorn was miserable. “I was fast,” he said. “Let me run and play in space. But they just looked at me and thought, ‘safety.’ ” Dennis Thurman had no doubts that Sehorn could be a fine NFL cornerback. After all, it was Thurman – a black coach – who envisioned what Sehorn could accomplish at the position even before Sehorn did.
After transferring from a community college to USC, Sehorn was switched from wide receiver to safety. Then a head coaching change occurred before his senior season. The new staff liked Sehorn’s athleticism, but wondered whether he could make a bigger impact at another position. While watching Sehorn playing in a pickup basketball game on campus one day, Thurman, the Trojans’ then-defensive backs coach, got an out-of-the-box idea. “He’s got long arms, he’s quick and he’s got tremendous jumping ability,” Thurman recalled. “And when he was playing defense, guys had a difficult time getting away from him. Playing defense in basketball is a lot like playing corner. You’ve got to track a guy. We made the decision to move him.”
At 6 feet 2 and about 215 pounds back then, Sehorn was ideally built to cover big receivers. He also possessed outstanding speed, as evidenced by his time of 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Still, Trojans coaches realized they had made an unconventional move. Even in the early 1990s, white corners had all but disappeared from major college football programs, too. Sure enough, as NFL scouts stopped by USC’s campus during Sehorn’s senior season, they had one question for Thurman. “ ‘Can he play safety?’ I got asked that over and over,” Thurman said. “I told them he needs to play corner. Athletically, Jason didn’t have to take a back seat to any corner I had seen.”
Through his long playing and coaching career, Thurman had seen too many to count. That’s why Thurman encouraged Sehorn to push the Giants to let him play his best position. Eventually, Giants coaches relented. By his third season, Sehorn was a starter. For six seasons, he was a fixture in the Giants’ defensive backfield. As it turned out, Sehorn was more than good enough to play corner. There’s no doubt other white players are as well, Thurman said.
“If you’re white and you’re playing corner, it’s almost like it was back in the day if you were black and playing quarterback,” said Thurman, who was the Buffalo Bills’ defensive coordinator the past two seasons. “You’re just not going to be given an opportunity to show what you can do. The thinking just isn’t open to that.”
Sehorn’s success might have opened the door to other white corners, but they never arrived. “There are these moments where the categories are up for grabs,” Gladwell said. “If Jason Sehorn had been followed by three great cornerbacks, maybe the category would have shifted.”
“To call this kind of thinking racist is to mis-classify it,” Gladwell continued. “It has strong racial element and can be an engine of racism, but it’s not fundamental of that. But as human beings our first inclination is to think in terms of groups. It’s an incredibly problematic evolutionary vestige.”
Changing the game
Of course, things weren’t always this way. Renowned defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, currently the Tennessee Titans’ play-caller, was a star cornerback for the Detroit Lions in the late 1950s and 1960s. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at the position. In the old American Football League, Kent McCloughan, who is white, teamed with future Hall of Famer Willie Brown to give the Oakland Raiders a dynamic corner tandem. Brown and McCloughan, whose son Scot was formerly the general manager of the Redskins, are credited with being among the first to play aggressive press-man coverage. In both the AFL and the NFL in the 1960s and ’70s, it wasn’t strange to see white corners. The increased emphasis on the passing game changed everything.
By the 1990s, play-callers began devising more wide-open game plans to capitalize on rules changes that favored the offense. Speed at wideout, just like at running back, became even more important. Suddenly, corners had to cover the fastest players on the field with, many will tell you, both arms tied behind their backs. From the hash marks, Donnie Shell witnessed the change. An All-Pro safety and four-time Super Bowl winner with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Shell said that playing cornerback over the past 20-plus years is as difficult as it gets.
“In my day, we ran the ball all the time. Now, it’s a passing league. They’re throwing the ball 40, 50 times per game … and a lot of teams are going to more man-to-man coverage. That requires having the best athlete out there on the corner,” Shell said. “You don’t want to have a person out there and it’s a mismatch. If a quarterback sees a guy who is slow of foot on the corner, he’s not going to go to the side with the fast guy. They’re gonna avoid the fast guy and try to attack the weakness in the coverage. Corner, and guys who come in on the slot [receiver], the nickel, those guys are now the most athletic guys in the league.”
No one could argue that Pro Bowl receiver Jordy Nelson, who is white, lacks athleticism. And the big-play specialist (who’s listed at 6-feet-3, 215 pounds) is built similarly to Sehorn during his playing days. But white players simply aren’t gravitating toward corner in college, high school or even youth football. On the recruiting trail, white corners have become as mythical as unicorns, college coaches say.
“I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen one. I’m talking years,” Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason said. “If I see a 6-2 dude out there who can play corner, who has got great hips and can move, I’ll take him. I don’t care what color he is. They’re just not there.”
But this sorting process takes place long before players get to the NFL, or even college. Whitfield, the quarterback coach, sees it happening at the youth football camps all the time. Two really talented kids might come into a camp, or say a high school team, playing the same position. They can’t both be starters at the same position, so someone gets moved – and it reinforces the established patterns we already see. “They’ll package it, it’s not because he’s white, it’s because they have two good players and they want to get them both on the field,” Whitfield said.
Hall of Famer Tony Dungy doesn’t expect the situation to change. White players who may make good corners don’t see a path to continue playing the position if they advance in the game – and that matters. “We’ve kind of stereotyped our young kids into different thought patterns. And most of it is based on perception,” the former NFL head coach said. “There was a time when we didn’t have black quarterbacks. The thought of, for black kids, ‘OK, I’m going to play quarterback and I’m going to the NFL,’ it wasn’t there.
“When it comes to cornerback, that’s what some of these white kids are seeing now. They look and they don’t see that person who looks like them. What happens? They think that they should think about doing something else. Maybe I better be a receiver? Maybe I can’t do that? Maybe I need to be a safety? It certainly wasn’t always that way. And there’s nothing innate in the position that would lead you to think it has to be. A lot of it is just perception and getting steered to certain positions – and getting steered away from certain positions.”
McCaffrey, the former Stanford star, wouldn’t be diverted. Determined to play running back, he stayed at the position he loves. And on the eve of the draft, he definitely has the NFL’s attention. But once the first round begins, will McCaffrey keep it? He’s about to find out whether the league truly sees him – or merely a white guy wasting his time trying to play a “black” position.