NFL

Racial Issues in NFL - Player Comparisons

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This article is the first 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.

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.

Comparisons of Players are Often Skin-Deep

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Jayson Braddock’s article primarily focused on the media’s insistence on lumping all white receivers or running backs together, and how these stereotypes are inaccurate. “The next Wes Welker” is a refrain too commonly heard since the 2007 season when Welker exploded onto the scene. Over the past few years, the comparison has been made regarding white wide receivers such as Jordy Nelson, Austin Collie, Kevin Walter, and most recently in the 2010 draft, rookie receiver Jordan Shipley. However, the player most like Welker is actually Dexter McCluster, a hybrid receiver/running back/return man who is a rookie for the Kansas City Chiefs. Listed on NFL.com as 5’8” and 170 pounds compared to the 5’9”, 185-pound Welker, the two players are built very similarly in almost every aspect except for the color of their skin. While announcers tend to immediately mention McCluster’s speed when his name comes up, players such as Shipley and Welker are often described as using “shiftiness” or “crafty route-running” to get open, which is a subtle hint that they lack speed. It’s hard to prove that the difference in perceptions of these players is due to race, but when race is one of the only differences between Welker and McCluster, and there’s such a drastic contrast in the way the two are portrayed, it’s only natural to wonder if a correlation exists there.

This bias does not just exist at the position of wide receiver – white running backs are few and far between in the NFL, and are rarely even drafted. When they do achieve prominence, white running backs are often lumped together. This March, the Cleveland Browns obtained running back Peyton Hillis in a trade from the Denver Broncos, and Hillis had an outstanding 2010 season. Inevitably, Hillis’s success this year has drawn comparisons to the last white running back to have success in the NFL – Mike Alstott. In fact, none other than Alstott’s former teammate Warrick Dunn added to the chorus of voices comparing Hillis to Alstott. However, when watching video of the two players, it’s clear they are nothing alike. Alstott was a goal-line specialist whose career average yards per carry was 3.7, Hillis is an explosive runner whose average this season is an impressive 4.4 yards per carry. Hillis has very little in common with Alstott and is in fact more similar to a black running back, Stephen Davis.

With all the attention Hillis has received as the first white running back to gain over 1,000 yards since Ronald Reagan was president, Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis was asked if Hillis is getting extra attention because of his race. In a response that was much more well thought-out than his comments about Ines Sainz, Portis compared the attention given to white running backs to that given to black quarterbacks:

“I think it’s the same,“ Portis said. “When you look at when a black quarterback, a Michael Vick or Donovan McNabb, and a black quarterback goes out and makes a play, it’s so exciting, ‘Oh, a black quarterback, a black quarterback!’ But I think on the flip side, it’s because you don’t see a lot of black quarterbacks leading teams. When you think of the running back, in the NFL, all the running backs you can come up with are black running backs. I think Peyton Hillis is the exception. He’s running outstanding, he’s running hard like he’s got something to prove.”

Keep an eye out for next week's segment on this issue: Does Race Affect Players’ Market Values?

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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