Let's face it. Racism is a tough and complex issue to talk about, and a lot of people would rather just not talk about it at all. That anxiety is only magnified when talking about football, an American pastime. After all, sports seem to have a mystifying quality about them that bring people of all sorts of backgrounds together. Surely this classic Sunday ritual is free from racism and discrimination, which seem to loom large in this country currently, right?
Unfortunately, that's not the case, or so say some of the league's black players. A recent story that ran on Bleacher Report reveals that black players are still encountering racist slurs when playing on the road. And not just occasionally, but on a weekly basis.
"I've been called the N-word on almost a weekly basis in some [opposing] stadiums," he said. "It gets nasty, and it's gotten worse in the past two or three years." - anonymous Bucaneers player
In speaking with some of the black NFL players around the league, Mike Freeman, the article's author, found that somewhere between 20-30 percent of black NFL players experience racial hostility when on the road. Freeman also says the players interviewed believed that both the frequency and severity of these incidents had increased over the past handful of years. Said Bucs receiver Louis Murphy, "Racism is still prevalent today . . . Everybody deals with stuff. Racism is still alive. It's real."
And that's just the beginning. While it's easy enough to write off these racial slurs as isolated incidents carried out by . . . idiots, for lack of a better term, it's harder to explain some statistics about blacks in the NFL. For example, while black players compose about two-thirds of NFL on-field personnel, only 20 percent are quarterbacks. Even more shocking is that following a poor performance, black quarterbacks are 1.98 to 2.46 times more likely to be benched than their white counterparts with a similar skill set.
It's really unfortunate. But then again, looking back some of the league's darker history, it's not that surprising to see that we are still having these racial struggles today. What black athletes deal with now are the repercussions of old stereotypes and ideals dating back many decades ago.
The NFL was originally an integrated league from its inception in 1920, but as the sport became more popular, so did pressures to exclude blacks. After all, if the NFL was to become more marketable, it should become segregated as Major League Baseball and other popular leagues at the time. That's why then-Redskins' owner George P. Marshall convinced other team owners to enact an off-the-books pact to segregate professional football. For 13 years, from 1933 to 1946, the NFL was completely white. The Redskins wouldn't become desegregated until 1962.
While the segregation of a sport is tragic in and of itself, former NFL center LeCharles Bentley believes that it fostered a hostile and racist culture that is responsible for the racism we see in football to this day.
"The black players were placed at the "skill" positions, which is another way of saying they were asked to just run fast. Their white counterparts held on to the positions that were considered the "cerebral" or "central" positions. "Centrality" is an advanced theory many sociologists point to in order to explain why positions like quarterback, center, middle linebacker and safety were off limits to the black players.
These positions were "central" because they required critical thinking skills and communication to teammates. Black athletes during that period were deemed not smart enough to communicate effectively and incapable of leading. I don't want to fail to mention there was a natural quota system in play because all of the black players were competing for the same few jobs. So the league was "integrated" but with positional stipulations and numeric accountability. Black players readily accepted their "roles" because prior to 1946 blacks weren't playing at all. "
Now while this does sounds like a bunch of mostly unfounded theories rolled into one, these were actually real stereotypes and beliefs held by quite a few people. Take for example, what CBS Sports commentator Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder said in 1988.
"The black is a better athlete to begin with because he's been bred to be that way, because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs and he's bred to be the better athlete because this goes back all the way to the Civil War when during the slave trade … the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid …"
Perhaps it was these false beliefs that led to some of the racial positional divides that we still see in the sport today. In Week 15 of 2008, all 32 starting running backs were black, and 59 of 64 wide receivers were also black. In contrast, 81 percent of starting quarterbacks were white, and only one black player in the entire league lined up as a kicker or punter. While the offensive line is roughly split between the two races, the center position, which is often associated with mental ability, has a strikingly large number of white players. In 2014, 40 of 51 NFL centers were white.
This isn't a result of explicit racism, but rather a bias, both subconscious and conscious at the developmental level. You would think these stereotypes would be dead by now, but it seems as if for whatever reason, a Pee Wee coach is much more likely to place a young white player at quarterback than his black teammate.
Thankfully for the most part, we're past blatant racism and name-calling. However, we've still got a long ways to go as a sport. We must remember that regardless of skin color or background, what brings us all together is a mutual love for football.