Numbers show that wide receiver, running back and cornerbacks spots in Pac-12 and NFL filled mostly by black players. Is there a stigma that white players at certain skill positions have to fight? It’s a sensitive subject that many are reluctant to discuss because it involves race.
Eric Sweet wasn’t in the room when his son, Kyle, was told for the first time that the color of his skin might have something to do with the number of college athletic scholarship offers he was getting.
But he remembers exactly how Kyle, now a freshman receiver at Washington State, relayed the news when he got home.
An assistant coach for a Pac-12 team had stopped by Santa Margarita High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., to meet with Kyle and his football coach.
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Toward the end of what had seemed like a promising conversation, the coach — who was white — said: “We’ve got to deal with the elephant in the room. You’re a white receiver and I have to sell you to our offensive coordinator.”
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When the Sweets heard that, Eric told his son, “Even if they offer you, you’re not going there because we’re not going to get a decent chance.”
Is there a stigma that white football players at certain skill positions have to fight to overcome? It’s a sensitive subject that many are reluctant to discuss because it involves race.
Even Eric Sweet stressed several times during two interviews that he didn’t want to stir up any controversy, and that Kyle and his family are happy with how things have worked out: The receiver accepted his only Pac-12 scholarship offer to Washington State, played in 10 games and started two games as a true freshman for the Cougars.
“We’re just thrilled that one school took a chance on him and felt like, ‘Hey, he can play,’” Eric Sweet said “He could have had 30 offers and still would have ended up at WSU because it’s a good fit for him.”
And yet, despite setting a school record with 2,420 receiving yards in his career at Santa Margarita High, Kyle Sweet had only two FBS scholarship offers coming out of high school: from WSU, and Hawaii, which wanted him to play safety.
During his son’s recruitment, Eric Sweet says at least three Pac-12 coaches referenced the fact that Kyle being a white receiver might work against him.
“It’s hard for a white guy to talk about opportunities. … I wouldn’t have believed it if three Pac-12 coaches hadn’t told me that,” Sweet said. “It sounds a lot like (what happened to) the African-American athletes in the 60s who were overlooked or ignored. But it’s flipped around.
“It was horribly wrong in the 60s, and it was terrible to see what happened to athletes who weren’t given opportunities. … I can’t say it’s (as) terrible now, but it exists.”
The Pac-12 landscape
A cursory survey of the final regular season two-deep depth charts of every Pac-12 team showed…
0 white cornerbacks
3 white running backs
14 white receivers
There are numbers to back the theory that it’s more difficult for white football players to get playing opportunities at some skill positions — particularly at the receiver, running back and cornerback spots.
In September 2014, Andrew Powell-Morse, the head of data analysis and editorial content at BestTickets.com, studied the 53-man rosters of every NFL football team.
The data analysis showed there were no white cornerbacks in the NFL that year (while there were 170 black cornerbacks). It also showed eight white running backs (compared to 107 black running backs) and 17 white wide receivers (compared to 159 black wide receivers).
You also have to look back to 1985 to find the last time a white receiver (Steve Largent of the Seahawks with 1,287 yards) led the NFL in receiving yards.
And even though Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey finished as a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy this year, no white running back has won the award since Penn State’s John Cappelletti in 1973.
Oregon State’s Mike Hass (2005) is the only white player who’s ever won the Biletnikoff Award for receivers, which has been around since 1994. Similarly, only once in the 29-year history of the Jim Thorpe Award that goes to the best defensive back in college football has a white player won — Colorado State safety Greg Myers in 1995.
Is this because there are truly a larger number of athletic black players than their white counterparts? Or do white running backs, receivers and defensive backs start out from a disadvantage in the recruiting and awards voting arenas because they are automatically perceived as slower or less athletic?
It’s difficult to tell because it’s not a subject that many in the football community are open to talking about.
“In football, these problems fester because people don’t want to talk about it,” said ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon, who over the years has done extensive reporting about race issues in sports. “They don’t want to engage.”
Truth or myth?
Not everyone agrees there is any bias against white players at skill positions in football.
Former Portland State coach Nigel Burton, now a commentator for the Pac-12 Network, suggested the issue usually comes up only when a high-school coach is trying to find excuses to explain why his player is not being heavily recruited.
“To say there is a bias against white players is pretty ludicrous to me. There are a ton of really good white receivers in the NFL and running backs in college, including the Heisman runner-up,” Burton said, referring to McCaffrey.
Others, such as former Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, said they had not encountered the issue in their recruiting, but could not speak for anyone else in their profession.
“I always tried to recruit the best player,” Aliotti said. “I didn’t look at color as far as evaluation, I just tried to take the best players we could find.”
Still, several former coaches acknowledged that they’ve personally witnessed the sort of conversations the Sweets described.
Former WSU quarterback Jason Gesser coached high-school football for a few years, then worked as an assistant coach at Wyoming and Idaho before taking a more administrative role within the Cougars’ athletic department this year.
Gesser recalls an incident when he was coaching at the high-school level and tried to get a friend who was a college coach to take a look at a safety on his team who happened to be white.
“He said: ‘There’s no way I can sell a white safety to my coach. If he’s a different color, I could probably give him a scholarship,” Gesser said. “I sat there thinking, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me.’”
Many of the coaches who spoke to The Seattle Times agreed that on the most basic level, there is some perception that black athletes are faster than their white counterparts.
To some extent, that perception is rooted in fact. For instance: in the 32-year history of the IAAF World Track & Field Championships, which are held every two years, black athletes have dominated the sprinting events. Only once has a white athlete finished on the podium in the men’s 100 meters — Italy’s Pierfrancesco Pavoni came in third in 1987.
In football, a sport where speed is of utmost importance at the skill positions, the sheer number of fast black athletes stands out. Still, coaches say the onus is on the recruiter to make a measured, thorough evaluation instead of giving in to stereotypes or relying on the old eyeball test.
“Sometimes, yes, there’s a little bit of a stigma that if he’s a black kid, he obviously runs faster than a white young man,” Aliotti said. “But the key to recruiting is evaluation. I had some kids who were white in the secondary and some who were black. If I thought the kid could play off the film, we recruited him.”
A cursory survey of the final regular season two-deep depth charts of every Pac-12 football team shows zero white cornerbacks, three white running backs and 14 white receivers who saw meaningful playing time this season.
Three of those 14 receivers play for WSU — Sweet, River Cracraft and senior Tyler Baker. Of the three running backs, one is Stanford’s McCaffrey, who broke Barry Sanders’ season all-purpose yardage record with 3,496 yards, and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Alabama running back Derrick Henry.
Did race have anything to do with McCaffrey not winning the Heisman Trophy?
Burton refutes that notion, positing instead that Stanford’s late kickoffs – the Cardinal played seven games this season that began at 7 p.m. PT or later — hurt McCaffrey’s Heisman chances with many East Coast voters.
Wilbon disagrees. In the week leading up to the announcement of the Heisman Trophy winner, Wilbon said on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” that McCaffrey — whom he called “the best player in college football” — would have gotten more attention had he not been white.
In a phone interview last week after the Heisman results were released, Wilbon stood by his comments.
“You could make an argument to try and convince me that the time zone matters, but I’m not so sure,” Wilbon said. “The racial part of it I still think matters. These are the stereotypes people buy into. … People look at white athletes in certain positions in football and it hurts a white kid playing what’s perceived as a black position.”
If this perception does exist, WSU coach Mike Leach says the media are as culpable in perpetrating those stereotypes as any coaches.
“I do think that occasionally, if somebody looks at film in general and in the film they see a team with predominantly black guys, there’s an assumption that they’re fast and that that’s a fast team. That’s correct sometimes, sometimes it’s not,” Leach said. “I think the most screwed up on this is the reporters because as soon as the reporters and the recruiting services see a black quarterback, they want to say he’s a dual-threat guy, whether he can run or not. … People get something stuck in their head.”
Bias certainly works the other way, too. For instance, “consider that two-thirds of the NFL is black, yet only one kicker/punter is,” said Burton, referring to Marquette King, the Raiders’ punter.
“Lots of kids get pushed into positions based on parent, youth or high-school coaches’ biases,” Burton said.
Coaches and parents say the best way for white skill players to shake the perception that they’re slower or not as athletic as their black counterparts is to perform on the field, on the biggest stages, and the highest levels of the game.
“When you have people leading the charge like Wes Welker, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman and guys like Christian McCaffrey up for the Heisman, they can’t be in the middle to get some attention,” said Tracy Cracraft, River’s mother. “As these people continue to rise to the very, very top, those are the types of things that will bring change.”
Like society, football culture can be slow to evolve.
Gesser, 36, said he believes some of the stereotypes that associate certain races with certain positions will start to die out as younger coaches start to fill positions of influence.
“It’s a good ol’ boy mentality. … When you start to see this generation become head coaches and general managers, you’ll start to see that (race) doesn’t matter one bit,” Gesser said. “You’re starting to see that take place. It’ll take the next generation, born from the 1970s and ’80s on, to make that change.”
|A look at NFL rosters|
|In September 2014, Andrew Powell-Morse, the head of data analysis and editorial content at BestTickets.com, studied the 53-man rosters of every NFL football team.. Their findings:|
|Position||Black players||White players|