Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Pigeonhole: Race and Roles in American Sports

Those of you who have been reading this blog know that I am an NFL draftnik. I am one of those guys who spend hours making mock drafts months before the real NFL draft, knowing full-well that nothing I put down has a chance of being close to the truth. What can I say, I just like it.

I also buy expensive draft magazines. $7.99 each (or higher). Inside are hundreds of scouting reports on college players; their strengths and weaknesses, and who they compare to in the NFL. Here are a few of the comparisons of Offensive Tackles from Lindy’s 2009 NFL Draft Magazine:

* Eugene Monroe: NFL Comparison: Levi Brown, Cardinals
* Andre Smith: NFL Comparison: Jason Peters, Bills
* Jason Smith: NFL Comparison: Tony Ugoh, Colts
* Michael Oher: NFL Comparison: Chris Samuels, Redskins
* Eben Britton: NFL Comparison: Jon Runyon, Eagles

Notice anything? No? Let’s try the comparisons in the Tight End category.

* Brandon Pettigrew: NFL Comparison: Bubba Franks, Jets
* Chase Coffman: NFL Comparison: Todd Heap, Ravens

Still, no? Let’s try Quarterbacks:

* Matthew Stafford: NFL Comparison: Jay Cutler, Bears
* Mark Sanchez: NFL Comparison: Brady Quinn, Browns
* Josh Freeman: NFL Comparison: Daunte Culpepper, Lions

Get the picture? Do all black offensive lineup pass block the same? Do white tight ends make the same head-fake before running a seam route?

To be fair, there are a couple of sporadic places where they compare white players to black ones, and vice versa; but the overwhelming majority of the magazine compares black athletes to other black athletes and white athletes to other white athletes. Even when Michael Oher could easily be compared to Joe Thomas, and Brandon Pettigrew matches up very nicely to Heath Miller.

OK, a controversial statement: In 2003, when Rush Limbaugh made his controversial statements about Donovan McNabb, he wasn’t entirely wrong.

Now let me retract a little bit. I never have listened to Rush Limbaugh. I am not a fan, my views do not coincide with his, and this is not a defense of him. However, to be clear, here is what Limbaugh said:

“The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well,’’ Limbaugh said. “There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.”

He didn’t say Donovan McNabb wasn’t a good quarterback. He didn’t say black quarterbacks were bad. He said the media wants a black quarterback to do well. Well, I have no idea what the media as an entity wants. But, let’s check the stats from 2003, the year he commented on Donovan McNabb.

In 2003, McNabb ran the 20th-ranked passing offense in the league. He had a 57 percent completion rating, 16 TDs to 11 interceptions, and a 79.6 QB rating. That 79.6 QB rating placed McNabb 16th in the league behind journeymen like Brad Johnson and Jon Kitna. His 57.5 completion rating placed him 19th in the league behind Jake Plummer and Jake Delhomme. He made the Pro Bowl that year. Johnson, Delhomme, Kitna and Plummer did not.

And what’s worse, those mediocre stats were from before McNabb began to play better. After the 3rd game of the season, when Limbaugh made his statements, McNabb was 55 for 111, with 2 interceptions and just 1 TD pass. Those are Ryan Leaf type numbers.

Now this is not to knock Donovan McNabb in any way. McNabb is a great quarterback, no doubt at all. McNabb had been a very good quarterback in before then and had a down year in 2003, but bounced back splendidly in 2004, taking his team to the Super Bowl with the highest QB rating of his career. That said, checking out McNabb’s stats that year, and noticing that their defense was rated 7th in the league—right behind the Baltimore Ravens—it’s certainly fair to say that Limbaugh’s point that McNabb was overrated that year and didn’t deserve a trip to the Pro Bowl might not be entirely wrong. So, more food for thought—why weren’t more people criticizing McNabb’s performance that year?

The Running Back’s Glaring Whiteness
Here’s a question: If I told you that a high school running back who won the Gatorade New Jersey State player of the year—an honor previously given to guys like Eugene Monroe and Greg Olsen—a kid who came from the high school football factory of Don Bosco Prep—which puts countless kids into high Division 1 football programs all over the country and is currently the 4th ranked high school football team in the country—a kid who is a prototypical-sized running back at 5’11”, 200 pounds and runs a 4.46 40-yard dash and a 4.25 short shuttle, a kid who has a 3.6 grade point average; if I told you all this, and then further, that this kid did not get one scholarship offer to a Division 1 school, you’d tell me something was wrong.

What if I also told you that this kid, Dillon Romain, is white?

Never mind the Miamis or Penn States or Michigans of the world, Romain didn’t get an offer from Middle Tennessee, Central Michigan or Ball State. The previous 10 New Jersey Gatorade Players of the Year all went on to BCS-conference teams. And it wasn’t because Romain didn’t put up impressive stats. He had 26 TDs in 12 games and average 7 yards a carry. Heck, on the ultra-competitive Don Bosco football team, Romain was in the starting lineup as a sophomore—an incredibly rare distinction given to an underclassman in a football factory school. Plus, Don Bosco coach Greg Toal said, “He had all the qualities you want. . . . He can block. He can run. He can catch. There’s nothing he can’t do well.”

So what’s with the lack of Division I offers? What gives?

Chris Melvin, a New Jersey-based high school talent evaluator from Elite Recruits, said this: “He just got overlooked for whatever reason. But I’m telling you: Dillon Romain is going to be a special back at the next level.”

While there were a variety of excuses for why Romain wasn’t given a scholarship (“He didn’t play defense at Don Bosco;” “He was a product of the talent around him”), Melvin and Toal think a contributing factor could be that Romain is white and plays running back.

“Being a white running back is not the easiest thing,” Toal said. “There’s stereotypes out there in this day and age.” “To this day, I know he has Division 1 talent,” Melvin said. “It’s just a matter of these coaches realizing that.”

The story was the same for Danny Woodhead. As a high school senior at North Platte High in Nebraska, Woodhead was the Nebraska Gatorade Player of the Year, offensive captain of the Omaha World-Herald’s and Lincoln Journal Star’s all-class, all-state teams and HuskerlandPrep Report’s Player of the Year. The World-Herald and Journal Star also selected him as their 2003-04 High School Male Athlete of the Year. Both newspapers accorded him the State College Male Athlete of the Year this spring. Yet, Woodhead received not one scholarship to a division 1 school anywhere. Instead he went to Division II Chadron State, where he set a plethora of records, including being the first collegiate anywhere to record 17 200-yard rushing games. He also led all divisions with 3,158 all-purpose yards. However, despite all that, Woodhead did not get drafted in last year’s NFL draft. Last year’s Nebraska Gatorade Player of the Year, Tyrone Sellers—a black athlete—received several division 1 scholarship offers and is going to BCS-football school, The University of Kansas.

The Media: Blinded By The White
The point of all this is not to discredit black athletes and champion white athletes. It is to talk about perception.

Over the many years of watching sports on television—be it in basketball, football or whatever—how many times have you heard a commentator describe a white athlete as “intelligent” or “crafty.” Conversely, how often have you heard that a particular black athlete was “explosive” and “athletic”—even if said black athlete wasn’t outstandingly athletic, or the white athlete particularly clever.

(A personal favorite, NBA commentator/buffoon Bill Walton, ignoring the fact that Steve Nash, a three-sport star growing up, and comes from a family of athletes, who was blowing past opposing point guards with ease, said that Steve Nash was the least athletic point guard in the NBA. Nash, who won 2 MVP awards, led the NBA in assists for 3 years and was shooting over 50% at the time—miraculous for a point guard. Not athletic.)

The pre judgements of athletes is insulting to both races. Are Chris Cooley, Mike Vrabel or Jared Allen not athletic? Do they only manage to play Pro Bowl level professional football only by their wits? Did Jacoby Ellsbury lead the majors with 70 stolen bases because he’s really, really crafty?

Likewise, does Ray Lewis just get lucky when he sacks a QB or blows up a RB behind the line of scrimmage? Did he just happen to pick the right lane to rush by accident? Or maybe he, as a smart football player figured it out beforehand? Does Darren Sharpen not bait quarterbacks? What about Jerry Rice—did he catch 90 passes when he was 40 years old—beating kids almost half his age—only because he was still “explosive?” Or maybe he had a good sense of the game, possibly maybe?

Some time ago, the accepted wisdom was that blacks could not play quarterback. The position was too cerebral for them—they were athletes, not thinkers. Leave the cerebral positions to white guys and let the black guys man the speed positions—wide receiver, cornerback and running back.

Slowly, and thankfully, time eroded that perception in the form of Doug Williams, Randall Cunningham, Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb. At least somewhat. The perception, however, that white athletes shouldn’t play “speed” positions such as cornerback or wide receiver still exists. The last white cornerback in the NFL, Jason Sehorn, played the position almost a decade ago. Since then there have been a handful of white wide receivers, one or two white running backs who had a cup of coffee in the NFL before being cut. And not one cornerback.

And it starts even earlier than the NFL. You don’t see a white cornerback in a NCAA BCS school anywhere. Is it because white athletes are just physically incapable of manning those positions? Or could there be some other explanation.

A Form of Prejudice
Mark Kreigel, who interviewed Jason Sehorn a few years back for an article on this subject of white cornerbacks, wrote this: “Sehorn doesn’t doubt that a form of prejudice, however benign, results in some white high school kids being steered away from positions like cornerback.” Why does he believe that? Because it happened to him.

At every level of his football playing career, coaches tried to steer Sehorn away from cornerback—from high school, through college, and even until his NFL career. He was consistently ‘encouraged’ to play safety rather than cornerback—this despite Sehorn being 6’2”, running a 4.45-40 yard dash and having extremely quick reflexes—ideal qualities for a cornerback. He resisted. And thrived in the NFL, before a devastating injury to his leg sapped him of his speed and reflexes. In two seasons as starting right cornerback for the Giants before the injury, Sehorn had 11 interceptions and 7 forced fumbles.

Question. Which wide receiver has the most receptions in the past 2 seasons. Hint; it probably isn’t your first guess. No, not Larry Fitzgerald, Chad “OchoCinco” or Andre Johnson. No, it’s a shortish, very quick white guy named Wes Welker. Welker’s story is similar to Romaine’s and Woodhead’s: In high school he was named USA Today Player of the Year for the state of Oklahoma, where he excelled at wide receiver, running back, cornerback and kicker. Despite all that, Welker only received one scholarship offer—and it was a fluke. Only when a recruit backed out of a scholarship did Welker get an offer to play for Texas Tech.

At Texas Tech, he had 259 receptions and scored 21 TDs. He also had 79 rushes for 456 yards and returned an amazing 8 punts for touchdowns—which tied an NCAA record. However, none of that impressed anybody and Welker went undrafted.

Luckily for the Dolphins, Welker was signed as a free agent and began to earn his way into some regular playing time. He was traded to the Patriots for a 2nd and 7th round draft pick, and there he has made a name for himself.

Welker, aside from having the most receptions in the past two years combined (112 and 111, which is also 1st and 2nd in the Patriots all-time list for receptions in a season), also tied a record for catches in a Super Bowl with 11. He’s 13th in the league with 13.5 yds per touch ahead of guys like Larry Fitzgerald. He was all but ignored at every level, yet proved he had all the athletic talent necessary to play—and play well—and to overcome the prejudices of others.

Yet listen to any announcer and all you hear when they describe Welker is that he’s “a short yardage guy” and “smart.” Smart? What’s going on? Is there a physicist out there constantly beating coverage?

The Pigeonhole
Years ago, black runners were told from the time they were in school that there were sprinters, and running cross country was a white man’s sport. That was until Ted Wheeler, at the University of Iowa decided to run cross-country instead of sprints—as all blacks were supposed to do.

“As soon as they decided that I couldn’t do it, that blacks couldn’t do it, that’s when I decided I was going to,” he says. “It was a thrill, an honor to be at the Olympics, because four years before I had been told, ‘You can’t do this.’”

Those same types of perceptions still exist—just a bit differently. Eric Decker, the extremely prolific, and white, wide receiver on the Minnesota Golden Gophers faces them right now. Despite opposing teams focusing on stopping Decker due to a lack of talent on the Gophers besides him (he was 60% of the Gophers aerial attack before an injury), and despite playing on a gimpy ankle all year—Decker is 8th in the NCAA with 758 receiving yards. And its not just short, possession-type receptions and dump-offs. Decker averages a lengthy 15.16 yds/catch. Yet he is considered, like Jordan Shipley—another white receiver playing at the University of Texas—a “possession” receiver. Shipley, who runs a 4.45, is the only athlete in University of Texas football history to score TDs by reception, kickoff and punt return in the same season. And despite his 4.45 40-yard, Shipley is described by scouts as “…not overly fast...a work horse…could be a solid possession receiver in the NFL” and is ranked by scouts behind Danario Alexander from Missouri who ran a 4.58 40-yard but who scouts believe “has all the NFL skills.”

Again, this is not to say that white athletes are better or black athletes are better. This is about perceptions. Namely, the perception that there are positions that white athletes can’t or shouldn’t play as once was believed about blacks. Why, despite all his achievements, did not one Division 1 college give Dillon Romaine a chance? Why was Steve Young considered a “savvy” quarterback whereas Michael Vick was considered athletic? Why was Austin Collie considered “not real fast” and with “questionable speed” before the draft and slipped to the 4th round, yet Kenny Britt, who ran a 4.56 was “surprisingly quick” and Hakeem Nicks who ran a 4.63 has “good athleticism” and “has enough top-end speed”? Why is Barret Ruud, an annual tackle leader, considered intelligent and savvy (“While he’s not fast, he anticipates well enough to make plays.”) and D’Qwell Jackson, who actually has a slightly slower 40-yard dash, considered speedy (“D’Qwell Jackson has good speed and closes the gap quickly against the ground game.”)?

This type of pigeonholing athletes of different races to specific positions is as old as sports in America. Marlin Briscoe, the first black quarterback who played in 1968, said that since he first played football in Pop Warner leagues straight through until he played for the Broncos, coaches tried to get him to switch positions. But, like Sehorn and Wheeler, he held fast to the idea that he could play quarterback, regardless of his race. And he wanted to prove it. And he did, running a 80-yard TD drive on his second series. “For black people, it was a test to dispel a myth that had been prevalent in society—that a black man couldn’t think, lead or execute.” Similar to Sehorn and Wheeler, his race, and not his athletic ability, was the impetus for coaches to try to change his position.

And what was racial politics back in 1951 is still practiced today.

It would seem, even in the age of Obama, we are still not past the age of stereotyping people due to their skin. Today, when the world’s most dominant golfer is a mixed-race man of color; where a white man named Jeremy Wariner is the gold medal Olympic winner at the 400m dash, why would stereotypes still prevail?

Perhaps we’re more comfortable that way? Perhaps it’s easier to assume people’s attributes by the color of their skin. “Since many black people are good at this, all should be.” “White boys don’t have the reflexes for running back.” It’s simple. It’s safe.

Ever the statesman, Billy Martin famously once said “If I had Benito Mussolini and Hitler and Hirohito on my team, and they could execute the double steal and hit sacrifice fly balls, they’d be in my lineup.” While obviously overstating it, Martin’s point is salient. Anyone, white or black, Asian or Arab or Hispanic—anyone—who can help you win, should play. In short; the ability is what matters, not the melanin.

And you think we would have learned that by now.


auirish said...

excellant article : it seems like the media is afraid to metion these facts.
well researched

blmeanie said...

nice read

Travis said...

I always like a good article on this topic. Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

good article