NFL Analysis: Does Race Impact Market Value of Players?

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This article is part two 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

Does Race Affect Players’ Market Values?

In all fairness, part of the reason for the scarcity of white running backs in the NFL is due to their lack of frequency in college – out of the 120 Division I college football teams, 110 teams’ leading rusher is black. When a white running back does get drafted, race is definitely taken into consideration. Before being drafted in the second round by the Minnesota Vikings in April 2010, Stanford running back Toby Gerhart told Yahoo!’s Michael Silver that he faced questioning about his race in a pre-draft interview:

"One team I interviewed with asked me about being a white running back," Gerhart said. "They asked if it made me feel entitled, or like I felt I was a poster child for white running backs. I said, 'No, I'm just out there playing ball. I don't think about that.' I didn't really know what to say."

Even if NFL teams aren’t consciously devaluing white running backs on their draft boards, questions like these are clearly on executives’ minds. One NFL scout went so far as to tell Silver that he felt NFL teams were underestimating Gerhart based on his race, and that it would cause him to drop an entire round in the draft.

"He'll be a great second-round pickup for somebody, but I guarantee you if he was the exact same guy -- but he was black -- he'd go in the first round for sure," the scout told Silver. "You could make a case that he's a Steven Jackson type -- doesn't have blazing speed but he's strong and powerful and versatile."

This scout’s contention is pretty serious – draft position is a big deal in the NFL, because there is an unofficial pay scale for rookies. Almost every player gets paid less than the player drafted before him, but more than the player drafted after him.. Not only are players getting more (or less) money than they deserve because they’re drafted in a spot that is not according to their talents, but teams are also misusing their draft picks and money if they’re letting race factor into their assessments. From the recent market values of Wes Welker, Donovan McNabb, Peyton Hillis, and Danny Woodhead, it seems as if the color of a player’s skin colors teams’ judgments as well.

Welker was traded from the Miami Dolphins to the New England Patriots in the 2007 offseason for a second- and seventh-round pick, and the return on the Patriots’ investment was three back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons. McNabb, despite lacking anything close to a decent receiving corps, led the Philadelphia Eagles to four straight NFC East titles, five NFC championship games, and a Super Bowl. Under McNabb, the Eagles had as many playoff wins as the Indianapolis Colts have with Peyton Manning, and a better playoff winning percentage. These accomplishments are arguably worthy of a Hall of Fame jacket, but McNabb’s trade value after one of his best seasons was surprisingly low: the Washington Redskins acquired him for a 2010 second-round pick, and a conditional 2011 pick that can be no higher than a third-rounder. The most comparable recent trade of a starting quarterback between division rivals was the Patriots’ 2002 trade of Drew Bledsoe, who lost his starting job to Tom Brady. The Bills acquired Bledsoe for a first-round draft pick, which is pretty surprising considering that Bledsoe’s resumé pales in comparison to McNabb’s, and Bledsoe was coming off of a season where he had lost his job due to injury.

The market values of white running backs Danny Woodhead and Peyton Hillis are rather surprising as well. Woodhead went undrafted before being signed by the New York Jets, who kept him on the practice squad for most of his tenure there. They cut him in 2010, and he went on to play for the New England Patriots, where he ran for 5.6 yards per carry. Hillis, mentioned previously, averaged 4.9 yards per carry in his first two seasons with the Denver Broncos, but was deemed expendable by coach Josh McDaniels, who traded him and two draft picks to the Cleveland Browns for quarterback Brady Quinn, who had completed only 52 percent of his passes in his career and never even attempted a pass with the Broncos.

To determine how much of a role race plays in these assessments, it must first be made clear that racism and allowing racial stereotypes to affect one’s thoughts are two different things. Before doing this, we must look at history to see the gradual erasure of blatant racism from sports, a process which started because of the commercial success enjoyed by Negro League baseball.

Keep an eye out for next week's segment on this issue: Why Overt Racism is No Longer Economically Viable In Sports?

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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