NFL Analysis: Racial Biases Continue to Lurk in Subconscious?

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This article is part four of a multi-part series tackling racial issues in the NFL. Over the next few weeks, Hank Koebler will be addressing many aspects of this sensitive and somewhat uncomfortable topic, one that many choose to discount, minimize, ignore or even accept exists.

Hank writes, "Recently my colleague Jayson Braddock wrote an article expressing his frustration with the media’s fascination with race in sports. At first I dismissed this fascination as the media’s tendency to look for trends and comparisons that don’t exist. However, after more thought I started to wonder just how much of a role, if any, race still plays in the NFL. A lot of pondering led me to realize that it plays a bigger role in the league than I would have realized if I had not thought about it."

Part 1: Tackling Racial Issues in the NFL - Comparisons of Players are Often Skin-Deep

Part 2: Tackling Racial Issues in the NFL - Does Race Affect Players’ Market Values?

Part 3: Tackling Racial Issues in the NFL - Why Overt Racism is No Longer Economically Viable In Sports

Are Subconscious Biases Lurking?

Although the evidence presented in last week's section suggest that economic practicality has forced overt racism out of sports, it does not answer the question of whether or not less obvious biases are affecting NFL decision-makers' judgment. These biases are even more difficult to combat than blatant prejudice, because they are harder to detect.

This subconscious judgment is referred to in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink as "thin-slicing," defined on page 23 of the book as follows:

"Thin-slicing refers to the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience."

This process of thin-slicing can be either good or bad, depending on the situation. For example, when a quarterback like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady sees something in a defense and immediately knows who will be open, that's thin-slicing. It happens all the time in sports, because athletes only have a split-second to make a judgment or decision, so they have to rely on their subconscious.

Snap judgments can just as easily be wrong, as well. In a later part of Blink, Gladwell describes the 1999 shooting death of Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea who was approached by four plainclothes police officers when he was on his way home from work. Diallo attracted the police officers' attention because he was out late at night by himself in a dangerous part of the Bronx, and he fit the description of a serial rapist who had been active in the area. Diallo had a stutter and spoke broken English, so when the four officers approached him, he didn't respond verbally to them. Instead, approached late at night in an alley by men with guns, he assumed he was being robbed and ran into his apartment. When the police gave chase, he pulled out his wallet. In the dark, it appeared to the police as if Diallo was pulling out a gun, so the police opened fire, and Diallo died.

What can be learned from a tragedy like this is that the process of thin-slicing, while often useful, can sometimes lead to incorrect conclusions. After Diallo's death, social psychologist Joshua Correll designed an experiment to determine whether race influenced people's judgment in a life-or-death situation. The experiment, available here, flashed images of people holding either a gun or a harmless object, and test-takers had to press certain keys on their keyboard to designate whether they thought the person pictured was armed or unarmed. Correll administered his test to police officers and civilians, and found that on average, test subjects were quicker to designate a black person as armed than they were to designate a white person as armed. Similarly, they were quicker to designate a white person as unarmed than they were to designate a black person as unarmed.

These biases exist not just in emergency situations, but throughout everyday life in general. A study called Project Implicit, run by Harvard researchers, offers the Implicit Association Test on its website, and its purpose is to use word association to determine if the test-taker has subconscious bias that he or she may or may not recognize exists. I strongly recommend taking the test, available here, because the results are eye-opening. If the test reveals you have a bias, it doesn't mean you're a racist. Instead, it means that you have internalized stereotypes of certain groups without even realizing it. The first time I took it was in my junior year of high school, where it revealed "a slight preference for lighter skin." I took it again while writing this article, and it told me I now have "a slight preference for darker skin." At first glance, this seems to make no sense. I'm at a university that has a much larger Caucasian population than either of my high schools did, so the results should have been the other way around. However, further examination of my situation reveals even more subtle influences than just the population surrounding me. I've spent the past two months researching racial issues in the NFL, and last week's article was very heavy on the role of black athletes who paved the way for today's generation. For this reason, my research primed my subconscious with positive images of African-Americans, hence the test results.

These biases exist in everybody, so it's logical to look for them in the NFL. Currently the media is focusing on the NFL's biggest stereotype-fest: the draft. When the draft rolls around every year, analysts naturally look for players in the NFL to whom incoming rookies are most similar. While that practice makes sense, it often leads to lazy, and oftentimes skin-deep, analysis. For example, this year's biggest name in the draft is Cam Newton, the Auburn quarterback embroiled in off-field controversy for most of the 2010 season. Throughout the draft process, he has been compared to Vince Young, Jamarcus Russell, and even Michael Vick. For anyone who's watched Newton play, it should be apparent that those comparisons are ignorant – skin color is where the similarities between Newton and any of those other quarterbacks ends. Newton is much faster and more accurate than Russell, and he stays in the pocket much longer than Vick or Young, who at that point in their careers would immediately look to run first. If anything, the quarterback who most resembles Newton is Ben Roethlisberger. As far as Vick comparisons go, the most similar player to Vick in the draft is actually a white player – Jake Locker. Locker displayed tremendous quickness, and runs with the same style as Vick. As a passer, he's certainly not elite, but he's better than Vick was when coming out of college. Despite this, draft scouts are discounting Locker's athletic abilities, and solely judging him as a passer. Multiple writers have said Locker needs to develop behind a veteran quarterback. When you look at the tape, this makes no sense. When Vick played as a rookie, his speed allowed him to buy time, exploit defenses through the ground when no receivers were open, and open up passing opportunities by forcing a defender to spy the quarterback. Locker's speed would do the same thing, plus he's a better passer than Vick, and yet he's labeled a project player who needs to sit on the bench for a year or two.

The stereotyping occurring at the top of the draft this year, combined with the facts about player comparisons and disparities in market values outlined in previous sections of this article series, suggests a troubling conclusion: NFL teams, and sports media, are looking at players through a color-sensitive lens.

Keep an eye out for next week's segment on this issue: Black quarterbacks, black coaches, and the Rooney Rule

Hank is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism. You may email Hank @ [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @ HankKoebler

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