Sunday, May 01, 2005

Race and football

In the NFL, the quarterback position is usually played by a white guy, while almost all the running backs are black. My guess at explaining this involves subtle racism at early levels. When a highschool coach sees a good young black athlete, he thinks "running back", while a comparably good white kid is more likely to be put in the more mind-intensive quarterback position. Perhaps the kids themselves have different aspirations for which position to play, though I didn't see any evidence for that on the playground in high school.

It seems to me that there's a less-explicable difference among linemen. I have no real data here, I think I've seen way more blacks on the defensive line and more whites on the offensive line.


Justin said...

Preface: I'm not making a novel point, but it really is remarkable the extent to which still today, white athletes in basketball/football get portrayed as wily/gritty/smart/squeezing the most out of their ability (think Larry Bird), while black athletes are portrayed as tremendously athletic, but often not having the same sorts of intangibles. This is especially true if you think of current and recent NFL quarterbacks: compare the storyline on Manning/Brady/Favre to the storyline on McNabb/McNair/Culpepper (to say nothing about Michael Vick).

To pick up on the O-line/D-line thread, I think conventional football wisdoom is that the defensive line requires more pure athleticism than the offensive line does. D-linemen need to be not only big but also agile while O-linemen can get away with just being big (roughly). There might also be some thought that O-linemen need to "think more" -- blocking schemes are generally more complicated than stunt/rush schemes -- although I suspect this is a far smaller factor.

Based on no real data, I'm also inclined to think that there are comparatively more black outside linebackers and comparatively more white inside linebackers. The same deal gets played out here too: conventional wisdom is that OLBs have to be athletic to rush the passer and cover tight ends and running backs in pass coverage, while ILBs have to be gritty and tought and think -- they are kind of like the quarterback of the defense, checking out of schemes and so on.

Last point: at Nebraska and at option schools generally (back in the 80's, there were a lot of these besides Nebraska), there seemed to be a definite prejudice by fans if not by coaches in favor of black quarterbacks. The underlying thought seemed to have been that the position of option quarterback calls for exceptional athleticism. At Nebraska at least, I can report that black quarterbacks weren't typically portrayed as "only"

And, at least at Nebraska, these quarterbacks typically weren't portrayed as "only" being athletic. Turner Gill and Tommie Frazier were always viewed by the media and fans as being gritty and super bright.

Justin said...

Thinking more about the first paragraph of my post, I have a hard time thinking of any black athletes who have been portrayed in the media as completely unathletic but full of guile and super smart -- succeeding despite a lack in athletic ability. I can think of a lot of white athletes who have been portrayed that way.

Anonymous said...

Tim Duncan may be an exception. I think I've heard him referred to as the "Cerebral Assassin". Granted, the man is 7'1''. But what most people believe makes him great is his intelligence. In a way, he is the quaterback of the Spurs since the offense runs through him. The Spurs expect Duncan to make the right decision (e.g. take the shot, kick it out to a guard, etc.) to create the best shot possible.

Another stereotype of black athletes (at least of black basketball players) is that they lack an understanding of the fundementals of basketball, e.g. passing, defense, boxing out, etc.). The implicit criticism with such a stereotype is that black athletes rely purely on their athletic ability. They do not ever bother learning fundemental basketball because there athletic gifts render such skills obsolete. Once again, Tim Duncan proves to be an exception. Sports commentators frequently refer to him as "The Big Fundemental" and credit his success to his mastery of fundemental skills.

This, of course, proves little. I can't really think of another black athlete who is portrayed in such a way even though I think any successful athlete cannot perform at the high levels they do without intelligence. How sad.

Blar said...

Stereotypes about black and white athletes show up in controlled experiments, too. In one study, college students listened to a 20 minute audio tape of the play-by-play for a college basketball game, and they were asked to rate the abilities of one of the players, "Mark Flick." Beforehand, they'd been told either that "Mark Flick" was white or that he was black. They rated him higher in hustle and basketball sense when they had been told that he was white, and as having more athletic ability and playing a better game when they thought he was black.

Source: Stone, J., Perry, Z., & Darley, J. (1997). "White men can't jump": Evidence for perceptual confirmation of racial stereotypes following a basketball game. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 19, 291-306.

Neil Sinhababu said...

I posted this more to learn stuff from comments than to put any of my ideas out there. Thanks, guys.