5 May 2020
ARE: The NFL: Embedded with racism
Imagine a league or organization that mistreats a majority of its members. How about a racist organization where almost 70% of the players are not white? This league is the NFL. With efforts to keep their image clean, they are trying to cover-up the truth about their league. Michael Bennett, current defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys, was very outspoken when asked by Sports Illustrated his opinion on how the NFL markets its players. He said, “They choose who they want to market. It’s all about: Who’s marketable? Who has the look? A whole bunch of great players never had commercials. Think about Julius Peppers. He hasn’t had the amount of commercials or the notoriety that J.J. Watt [has].” (Yuscavage, 2015) JJ Watt is one of the few premier white defensive ends in the NFL, and the NFL has marketed him as the most recognizable and skilled partly due to his repeated media exposure. NFL fans do not think the NFL is a racist organization, they cite black players and coaches make an abundance of money, which is a very narrow view of racism, but a close analysis of the problem reveals that the NFL is, in fact, racist such as an unequal opportunity for equal ability, salaries by position and race, and the language used by the media to describe black athletes vs. white athletes.
In America, being black is not equal to being white. If someone is white, they immediately have an advantage in all aspects of society due to racism in our country. The NFL is no different.
A TV drama series on Netflix produced in 2018 titled, “All American” is about a black football player who is living in poverty in Crenshaw, California. This player was given the golden opportunity to play high school football at Beverly Hills High School, one of the most premier high schools in California. This TV series allows youth black athletes to believe their only way out is by getting a golden opportunity, which can be a false misconception. “Of all the boys in America who play high school varsity football, less than 6 percent will go on to play at the college level, including those who go on to Division III schools where scholarships are not allowed. Of the precious few who do go on to play college football, only 1.8 percent will be drafted by the NFL. Bottom line? If your child is playing high school football, his chances of making it to the NFL are 0.08 percent.” (Jergens, 2014) Therefore, if you are even lucky enough to be given this golden opportunity, it is not as golden as it may be perceived. If a black athlete in poverty defies the odds and makes the NFL, there is still racism, and obstacles black athletes must endure as they are not treated equally as professionals. I will illustrate the racism these athletes experience after they receive their “golden ticket”.
Racism in the NFL starts at the top (ownership.) There are currently no black owners in the NFL, 30 out of the 32 owners are white males. Countless successful black men in America have made their fortunes in all different industries. Therefore, the reason for there not being a black NFL owner is not a lack of money or experience. They have both. Besides, all money is green. There must be another underlying reason.
If racial ideas are embedded in the league from the beginning, then activities done by NFL executives will not be perceived as racist because they are just following the system. One example of inequality for black athletes in the NFL is evident in the number of black coaches. In order to combat this inequality, the NFL enacted the Rooney Rule. This rule was supposed to eliminate discrimination when looking to fill an open head coaching job in the NFL. The rule forced a team to interview a minority coach whenever there is an opening for a head coaching job.
Let’s look at this rule a little closer. According to a report presented by the NFL in 2019, “From January 1963 to February 2019, only 18 different African American men and four Latino men have served as head coaches in the NFL.” They continue to report that, “Since the start of the 1963 NFL season, 112 white individuals have been hired as an NFL head coach, offensive coordinator or defensive coordinator after a first NFL head coach opportunity, whereas only 18 men of color have been hired as an NFL head coach, offensive coordinator or defensive coordinator after a first head coach opportunity.” (Harrison, 7) In today’s NFL, there are still only four head coaches of color. While the Rooney Rule forces organizations to consider minorities for head coaching positions, the owner makes the final decision. Due to the racially embedded traditions with all factors, the same besides race, history tells us that the NFL owner will pick the white coach over the black coach most of the time.
Another form of racist behavior is stereotyping players to positions based on the color of their skin. NFL owners and coaches are not interested in having black players play leadership positions, especially quarterback. Daniel Buffington, who wrote in the Sociology of Sport Journal, wrote, “Between 1983 and 1999 black players never made up more than 9% of the total number of quarterbacks in the NFL despite African Americans comprising roughly two-thirds of the league’s total population over those same years.” (21) Paul Kooistra can confirm this statistic in his journal entry by stating, “According to a USA Today article from December 17, 1991, in 1990, 92% of quarterbacks were white.” (243)
These statistics would appear to suggest that NFL executives do not trust black players to play a leadership role, such as quarterback. In a study by Matthew Biegler and Judson Jeffries, they discuss the racially embedded stereotype by saying, “We contend that NFL draft experts consistently rate African American quarterbacks higher than whites in the areas of physical abilities and lower in the area of cognitive abilities, thus perpetuating racial stereotypes of African Americans.” (121) This stereotype may impact their draft order. Using different vocabulary is also creating a racist stereotype that white quarterbacks are smarter than black quarterbacks with no scientific evidence to back up that claim.
The stereotyping of black players can be explained further by examining the situation in college football. The SEC (southeastern conference) has had the most players drafted into the NFL in the past ten years out of any other conference in college football. (Richmond, 2016) I gathered data from every player drafted by an SEC team to the NFL, by doing this the goal was to see how many of the quarterbacks drafted were black and see if it compared to the number of black quarterbacks on SEC rosters. By examining the NFL draft history for the past 20 years, (NFL.com, 1999-2020), I found that of the 43 quarterbacks drafted from 1999-2020, only 9 of them were black. When looking for the black quarterbacks who were on SEC rosters, it became apparent that “White players are five times more likely to play quarterback than black players in “predominantly white” conferences.” (Siler,2019) The SEC has a similar framework as the NFL in terms of opportunities for a black quarterback. NFL draft experts and general managers draft their players from the SEC the most out of any other conference. The personnel in charge of the NFL drafts prefer to pick players from predominantly white conferences, like the SEC.
The significance of these quotes is that the NFL is embedding racism into its core beliefs by starting to stereotype before the NFL draft. NFL draft experts have now become accustomed to using different languages to describe black and white athletes. Using different language to describe people is a dog whistle for racism.
Even if given a chance, there is less tolerance for failure due to the small patience coaches and owners have for black quarterbacks. They are stereotyped and considered to have less intelligence, so they are judged purely on athletic talents, like animals. After Detroit Lions linebacker Trevor Bates refused to pay a $32 cab fee, he was arrested. Following the arrest, the Sergeants Benevolent Association tweeted, “Trevor Bates acted beyond that of a wild animal. He refused to be fingerprinted, showed disdain for the officers & decided to punch a Sgt in the face. Fighting with officers he was tasered & ripped the taser prongs from his body. He’s dog crap and the NFL condones criminals.” (Chung, 2019) However, the Justice Committee responded on twitter with the actual story. The Justice Committee tweeted, “Police union boss called a Black teen a ‘mutt’ 4 times. Where’s the outrage? Why isn’t PBA president #PatrickLynch being fired? There’s no difference between being called a mutt & the N word, and there isn’t a scenario that makes racist slurs acceptable.” (Chung, 2019) The Sergeants Benevolent Association has racially profiled this black NFL player and later refers to him as acting like a wild animal (which is associated with black NFL players.)
This racist stereotype was turned on its head this past season in the NFL. Even though black quarterbacks are still not given the same opportunity as white quarterbacks, this past season was the first time in NFL history that the three major award winners were black quarterbacks. These awards are the Most Valuable Player (Lamar Jackson), Rookie of the Year (Kyler Murray), and Super Bowl MVP (Patrick Mahomes.) As a result, the NFL is beginning to recognize black quarterbacks for their accomplishments, and hopefully, this will open up new opportunities for black quarterbacks in the NFL.
However, the NFL continues to treat white quarterbacks more favorably in comparison to black quarterbacks. Brandon Marshall, an NFL wide receiver, commented on how the federal judge handled the suspension of Tom Brady. Marshall was asked if he thought that the situation would have been handled differently if the player being investigated was Cam Newton (a black quarterback) instead of Tom Brady. Brandon Marshall replied, “You can build a case on that, yes.” (Cosentino, 2015) When Tom Brady was asked to show his cell phone for evidence in his trial, Brady threw it against the wall, destroying the evidence. Being a white quarterback, Brady had the case dropped by a federal judge and was only suspended four games by the NFL. Brady was still suspended by the NFL due to constant pressure from the sports world and also to avoid anything that makes the NFL look bad. I wonder if Cam Newton threw his cellphone if he would play another game in the NFL.
Unequal opportunities, specifically at the quarterback position, lead to salary differentials by position. The first scholar to assess the differences in salaries between white NFL players and black NFL players was Robert Mogull. “In his 1973 study, Mogull found a 4% salary advantage for white veterans relative to black veterans, and only a 0.1% salary advantage for white rookies relative to black rookies.” (109-112) For example, the highest-paid position is, in fact, the quarterback, the franchise guy. This study by Mogull is an old and incomplete study in which he failed to point out the differences in salary by position.
Lawrence Kahn can further the research of Mogull. In his study, he found out that 4% (while not inaccurate) does not represent the full situation only white veterans vs. black veterans. After compiling research on all positions in the NFL, Kahn was able to draw a shocking conclusion. Kahn conducted a study where he supposed nonwhites continued to receive the same within-position salary, but with the white representation at each position. What Kahn ultimately wanted to study was how much money black players would make if they were given the white representation at each position. What Kahn found was, “The nonwhite salary would then rise from its $315,200 level to $415,923. Similarly, if we gave whites the nonwhite representation by position but assumed that they retained their within-position salary levels, the average white salary would decline from its $327,987 level to $269,962.” (303) These findings show that white players in the NFL are making more money than they should be with equal representation by position and that nonwhite players are making significantly less than white players, relatively. These statistics help to support the claim that the NFL is exploiting African American’s.
Kahn concluded his findings by saying, “I find that white players earned significantly more money in metropolitan areas with larger than average percentages of whites in the population than in other areas, and nonwhite players earned significantly more in areas with relatively high proportions of nonwhites in the population. These results are consistent with the presence of customer discrimination.” (308) What Kahn can attribute to the salary discretion are the NFL fans’ preferences. NFL teams and owners know that fans prefer to watch players on their teams that are the same race as them, so that they will sign players to their team based on the population of the town of the team. These findings by Kahn can attribute to a racial bias during free agency, and Kahn proves that it can affect black players’ salaries.
One topic not debated extensively by scholars is how the language of the media is different when describing white players vs. players of color. Broadcasters have a significant influence over the fan’s perception of the league. The NFL season is only 17 games; each team plays once per week. “Every Sunday is like a holiday during the NFL season.” (5 Reasons, Bleacher Report, 2012) This feeling created by the fans creates a “trickle-down effect” between the owners/media and the fans. A “trickle-down effect” is what the owner says influences what the media reports, and what the media says influences what the fans believe to be accurate. So, what the owners say does affect the fans.
The former owner of the Houston Texans, Bob McNair, was one of the few owners to state his feelings towards the protesting of the national anthem by several players publicly. McNair said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” (Evans, 2017) As expected, this comment received backlash from the players. One of the best wide receivers in the league, Deandre Hopkins, was very outspoken, and he skipped the next day of practice as a protest to the owner. Two years later, following Bob McNair’s death, the head coach of the Houston Texans, Bill O’Brien, called a meeting with Hopkins due to his increasing influence over the locker room. At the beginning of the meeting, O’Brien compares Hopkins to former NFL player Aaron Hernandez, who was convicted of murder. (Starr, 2020) This comparison confuses Hopkins because he has not done anything wrong. O’Brien continues the meeting by calling out Hopkins for having multiple baby mommas around, which is another stereotype of black males. Michael Irvin, a former NFL player, commented on the results of the meeting suggesting Deandre Hopkins was traded for the equivalent of a “ham sandwich.” (Starr, 2020) Hopkins received backlash from owners around the league because of the false information O’Brien was spreading about him. This situation with Hopkins is similar to the previous situation with Trevor Bates, who was accused of assaulting a police office, because they were both NFL players who had their name and reputation slandered by white men spreading misinformation. Hopkins’ teammates have almost unanimously defended him, citing he is a great locker room guy, team player, and leader on and off the field.
Another example of using racist words is shown in the media. The media uses racist language to report their stories. Last year, Myles Garrett (black defensive end for Cleveland Browns) received backlash from what seems to be every media network in the US after he struck Mason Rudolph (white quarterback for Pittsburgh Steelers) on the head with his helmet. During this fight, it is visibly apparent that Myles Garrett is a more physically imposing force than Rudolph. However, when Rudolph fails to rip the helmet off of Garrett’s head, it is because Garrett is about 40 lbs heavier and much more robust. So as a reaction to this, Garrett immediately pulled off Rudolph’s helmet. Instead of walking away from the situation, Rudolph pursued Garrett (who was being restrained by multiple Steelers players). As a result, Garrett swung Rudolph’s helmet for protection and struck Rudolph on the head.
Judging from the reactions on Twitter, the people around the media were enraged at Garrett. Reggie Bush (Former NFL player, current Fox pregame football host) said, “People getting stomped out, that was a hood fight!” ESPN television analyst Adam Schefter tweeted, “Assault!” Also, @ProFootballTalk tweeted that “Myles Garrett should be prosecuted.”
The language used by the media is drastically different between white and black athletes. The press was suggesting criminal action be pursued against Myles Garrett. They were suggesting criminal action because it was a black player hitting a white player. This sort of backlash is not present in the NHL (National Hockey League). Fighting is allowed in the NHL, and more than 90% of the players are white.
The last component of trickle-down racism is how the media and owners influence the fans. The fans seem to mimic the actions of the NFL elite and media due to constant involvement in their team. The attitude most fans have is relatively consistent no matter what race; they love their team and want to win. When fans interact with the players of opposing teams, racist remarks are hardly often heard. For example, Terrelle Pryor commented on his encounter with a Kansas City Chiefs fan. He said, “Being called a (n-word) several times to the point where an NFL employee had to step to me and stand by me the whole game from second quarter on is the exact reason why guys are kneeling during anthem. I choose not to kneel because as a team we decided to be one and stand, but as I walked in tunnel hearing someone call me a (n-word) and say F you to me. Me flicking the person off is more deserving. I do apologize to my teammates and the organization. But at some point you keep calling us the n-word, we going to start acting up.” (Morgan-Smith, 2019) This interaction between Terrelle Pryor and a fan is an example of how racism towards players is not addressed. The racist fan was allowed to stay, and the black player was guarded so he would not act out. The guarding of Terrelle Pryor shows that the NFL feels like Terrelle Pryor is more of a threat that the white fan. If this is not true, then why was the fan allowed to stay the whole game without being guarded?
These points demonstrate that the NFL is a racist organization; it was embedded with racism. Whenever there is something racist about the NFL in the news, most of the time, people do not know that it is wrong or racist. The only nonwhite owner of an NFL team, Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, said it best, “You’ve got a bunch of 85-year-old guys who don’t think they’re racist, but they are racist”. (Staff, Madison365, 2017) There is also a constant spread of misinformation about black football players that affect their way of life and sometimes end their careers.
African American’s are not alone in being discriminated against by the NFL. The Native American’s have been putting much pressure lately on the NFL to change the Washington Redskins logo and team name due to a racist stigma surrounding the team. There is also a movement done by the fans when they participate in a tomahawk chop to help ignite their team and make much noise. This practice has been considered racist as of late. Regardless, fans are not stopping even with pressure by the Native American activists. (Hollingsworth, 2020) The main reason why they are not stopping this tomahawk chop is that they do not know or feel what they are doing is racist, which is the underlying problem in the NFL has racism embedded into the institution. The only way to stop racism in the NFL is if there is an effort from owners, media, down through players, to make a concerted effort to end racism in the NFL. It will not happen.
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