Sport as an institution has seen many of its records and barriers shattered over its countless years of existence. For instance, sport has seen Jackie Robinson break the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and Billie Jean King defeat former champion Bobby Riggs in “The battle of the sexes”. One barrier that still exists in sports today is racial stacking and stereotyping. The social phenomenon of racial stacking and stereotyping within the institution of sport has profoundly hindered the development and participation of particular races in different dimensions of sport.
Racial stacking is a term coined by sociologists which refers to the over or under representation of certain racial group members in particular positions on a sports team (Woodward, 2002). Some instances of racial stacking seen in football include the majority of quarterbacks, centers, and middle linebackers being Caucasian, as well as the majority of defensive backs, running backs, and wide receivers being African American. An explanation as to why racial stacking occurs is the existence of stereotypes in football.
A stereotype is an exaggerated generalization of a group that can be both positive and negative. Unfortunately, even in today’s society stereotypes are still prevalent parts of institutions, especially sports. The stereotypes that affect sports can be both positive and negative, and in most cases can be a significant determinant in who excels in their particular sport. In football, African Americans are thought be to be both aggressive and athletic, as Caucasians are viewed as intelligent and hard working individuals. These are some examples of positive stereotypes in football.
Some negative stereotypes that can relate to football include African Americans being unintelligent and lazy, as well as Asians being too small to play the game. Although stereotypes are not true statements about groups of people, they will not be dropped anytime soon as sport is an institution that is typically reluctant to change. Although it will be difficult, in order to implement change in the future we must first understand where these stereotypes came from and how they impact the institution of sport, in this case football.
By analyzing the stereotypes of African Americans, Caucasians and Asians in football, society can look to try and eliminate the close mindedness of those who believe in such labels. To begin with, the race that makes up the majority of football players on all levels including the National Football League (NFL) and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is African Americans. In the National Football League, the largest stage for football in the world, during the 2008-2009 season, the African American race made up 67% of the entire league (Lapchick, 2009).
During the same year as those statistics were released, African Americans only made up 12. 8% of the entire United States population (Bureau, 2008). So the question remains why African Americans make up such a large percent of the National Football League when they only attribute to nearly 13% of the population. When asked to answer this question the general public may often attribute these findings to stereotypes. For example, the sport of football requires individuals to be both athletic and aggressive, traits in which are commonly associated with African Americans.
Although there are justifiable social reasons to explain these statistics, people still want to attribute the success of African Americans in sports to biology. The stereotype is that African Americans carry genes that make them biologically more athletic than other races. This theory dates all the way back to the 1936 Olympics in which Jesse Owens put on the single greatest individual track and field performance ever in sports (Schaap, 2009). Following Owens domination of the field in 1936, questions arose as to how African Americans had become such dominant athletes and where does their athleticism come from.
The easiest explanation was that it must reside in their biology rather than their history or culture. Speculations arose as to Owens having an extra bone in his leg, or elongated bones, all of which were proven to be false. Scientist found that biology was not a determinant in an individual’s ability to excel in sports; rather dedication, determination, and training are more influential factors (Dyreson, 2008). One socioligical explanation as to why African Americans excel in athletics is because it is viewed as a way of upward social and financial mobility.
Being one of the world’s largest institutions, sports generate billions of dollars in revenue each year. Specifically, the National Football League generates six billion dollars in revenue a year (Sports Industry Overview, 2009). The life of an NFL player is filled with fame, fortune and limitless opportunites, something that the majority of young children dream about. The reason we see more African Americans succeeding in sports is because they have limited resources and opportunities for upward social mobility elsewhere. With the poverty rate among African Americans so high (24. %) they often do not have the resources to excel in education so instead they look to sports as a way of socio-economic advancement (Bureau, Poverty, 2009). Sports sociologist Harry Edwards defines this concept of black youth using sports as a way of social mobility as “blind faith”. Edwards explains three reasons as to why black families push their children toward sports careers. The first of which is because of the long-standing presumption that “links black athletic superiority with intellectual deficiency” (Edwards, 2000, p. 9). The second being that media often portrays sports as a widely accessible route to social mobility.
For instance, it is not uncommon for children to grow up watching ESPN, a television station dedicated to featuring athletes succeeding in their particular sport. The media also plays a major role in the last of the three reasons for this “blind faith”. Edwards says that the final explanation is that there is a lack of comparably visible black role models outside of the realm of sport (Edwards, 2000). The key words in this last justification are comparably visible. There are plenty of successful black lawyers, doctors, and businessmen and women, yet the media only glorifies the athletes.
Hopefully with the election of President Barack Obama, black youth will have a visible black role model to look up to. Another explanation as to why African American families focus on athletics more so than academics is because “Whether you agree or disagree, Caucasians have been known to obtain jobs based solely on their skin color, with Blacks it’s just the opposites” (Butler, 2007). Many parents feel that because they are already at a disadvantage in terms of employment, they might as well put their focus towards athletics if their son or daughter has athletic ability.
So then why do African American parents push their children towards sports such as football and basketball rather than golf or tennis? For the many African Americans who are living in poverty, affording a football or basketball is much more realistic than signing their child up at a country club or buying a set of clubs. Clearly, socioeconomic status plays a significant role as to why African Americans focus on excelling in athletics such as football and basketball. This brings up a question as to why athletics is typically seen as the way out of poverty for young African Americans rather than academics.
The negative stereotypes in football help contribute to why academics and hard work are not typically an option. In football, African Americans are viewed as less intelligent, disciplined, and not as hard working as other races are. So if they are going to be lazy on the field, then it may be unrealistic to assume that they would be able to put in the hard work and determination to succeed academically. When generalized into society, stereotypes such as these are detrimental to the African American race and make it increasingly difficult for the advancement of this entire group.
On the other hand, Caucasians make up nearly 80% of the United States population, yet they only account for about 30% of players who play in the National Football League (Tomlinson, 2010). The main reason behind why there is a relatively small percentage of Caucasian football players in the NFL compared to the population is because of stereotypes and values associated with the race. In football, players are expected to be both naturally athletic and aggressive, stereotypes which do not typically describe Caucasians.
Furthermore, values associated with Caucasians play a critical role as to why such a minimal amount of Caucasians play in the NFL. For instance, unlike African Americans, Caucasians usually have supplementary opportunities to succeed in life other than athletics. Contrary to the majority of poor African American households, Caucasian households typically stress academics over athletics (Butler, 2007). An explanation to this theory may be that Caucasian families see the few amounts of whites that excel in sports such as basketball and football and feel that they should put their funds towards higher levels of education.
In a way, Caucasians look to follow the traditional path of the “American dream”, which includes going to college and getting a well paying job. In addition, stereotypes such as “white men can’t jump” and that Caucasians are slow and un-athletic may also factor into why there are less white athletes than there are African American. Caucasians may be shying away from participating in sports such as football and basketball which require such athletic ability and aggressiveness. The struggle of former Stanford University running back Toby Gerhart is a perfect example as to how racial stereotypes affect athletes in football.
In the 2009 season Gerhart rushed for 1,871 yards with 27 touchdowns against some of college football’s toughest competition. In addition, Gerhart was runner up to Alabama’s running back Mark Ingram in the closest Heisman vote ever (Silver, 2010). With such mesmerizing stats and credentials one may wonder why Gerhart is not seen as a top prospect in this year’s NFL draft. Many say the answer lies in his skin color, as Toby Gerhart is white. Despite the advice of numerous NFL general managers, Gerhart is entering this year’s NFL draft as a running back.
With such large size, (6 feet, 231 pounds) scouts are saying that he will be too slow and unable to break tackles at a professional level. What is so frustrating for Gerhart is that he ran a 4. 50-second 40-yard dash and registered a 38 inch vertical, both which are very impressive for an athlete his size (Silver, 2010). Despite his tremendous outing at the NFL combine he is still being considered a fullback at the NFL level. Michael Silver brought up a great question when he said “Why was Toby the only running back who had to run under 4. 6 to not be classified as a fullback?
Fifteen other guys ran in the 4. 6s at the combine, and nothing was said about them playing fullback” (Silver, 2010, para. 19). The answer is stereotypes. Gerhart is a projected second round pick at the earliest in this year’s draft yet he fits all of the characteristics of a professional running back picked in the first round except for his skin color. One NFL scout said, “He’ll be a great second-round pick up 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,” (Silver, 2010, para. 8).
Despite the barriers that Gerhart already faces in terms of becoming a premier running back in the NFL, his determination and work ethic will look to reverse the traditional operation of the institution. Despite how much stereotypes affect both African Americans and Caucasians in terms of success in football, there is undoubtedly one group that has been most affected by stereotypes. With sport being such a large institution, Asian athletes are hardly seen or heard of here in America, particularly in football. Being one of the largest growing minority groups n the United States one might wonder why there is such a lack of Asians in all levels of football. In the National Football League, African Americans and Caucasians make up nearly 97% of all players. As of the 2008-2009 season, there were only four players of Asian descent in the NFL. The four players being Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward (Korean), Dallas Cowboys linebacker Dat Nguyen (Vietnamese), Giants safety Will Demps (Korean), and finally Baltimore Ravens Safety Haruki Nakamura (Japanese) (Will, 2009). The lack of Asians in football can be attributed to stereotypes associated with that particular race.
Asians are constantly criticized in sports because they are considered too short, not athletic or even because of their facial features. For instance, former NFL quarterback Timmy Chang was criticized by NFL scouts for being too small to play the position. Chang is 6 foot 1, which makes him taller than many NFL quarterbacks. When asked about these height comparison one scout said, “But he plays short” (Lapchick, 2006a, para. 18). This quote is a reminder how even in today’s society stereotypes can create barriers in the institution of sport.
To conclude, despite setting a NCAA record for most career passing yards whiles playing at Hawaii University, Chang went undrafted during the 2006 draft. Another sociological explanation as to why there are such a small number of Asian football players is because of the culture they grow up in. Unlike racial groups such as African Americans and some Caucasians, Asians do not typically look at sports as a way of social mobility. Yun-OhWhang, a professor of sports marketing at the University of Central Florida says “Asian Americans put huge value on education.
Becoming a doctor or lawyer is the ultimate goal of many Asian American kids, which is heavily imposed by their parents” (Lapchick, 2003, para. 3). Whang’s statement is backed up by the fact that according to the 2000 census, Asian families in the United States had the highets average income as well as highest graduation rates for both highschool and college (Lapchick, 2006). For the Asian culture, it is more important to put hard work and dedicaiton into education so one can support their family rather than waste time trying to be one of the few atheletes to make a living in sports.
Stereotypes not only affect which sports racial groups excel in or why they excel in those sports, but they have a direct impact on the position members of racial groups typically play. This idea of over or under representation of certain racial groups in a particular position on a sports team is known as racial stacking (Woodward, 2002). In football, especially at the professional level, there are positions on the field that are traditionally played by a particular race. For instance, traditionally the quarterback position is played by a Caucasian.
During the 2008-2009 NFL season, out of the 32 starting quarterbacks, 26 (81%) of them were white (Spicer, 2008). Although African Americans make up 67% of the National Football, they only account for 19% of the starting quarterbacks. So why are there so many white quarterbacks starting in the NFL? When this question was posted on a popular Yahoo blog, “John and Stephanie” responded, “Because they are the leader. They are the ones who have to make GOOD and quick decisions. They do not dance around acting stupid all day and get thrown in jail for killing dogs.
QBs are hard to come across so you have to get a white one and be guaranteed they won’t be put in jail after 3 years” (John ; Stephanie, 2008, response 5). The authors of this post are basing their response on the play and decisions of former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. In 2007, Vick was sentenced to two years of prison on felony dog fighting charges (Werder, 2007). As ridiculous and foolish as this response is, unfortunately many people have a similar view on African Americans playing the quarterback position.
The false belief that successful quarterbacks at the professional level are typically Caucasian often prevents other races from even getting the opportunity to combat that stereotype. This stereotype may cause many African American youth to try and play another position in which they see more individuals of their race succeeding (Vance, 2009). This idea even spills over to the collegiate level where some of the greatest African American college quarterbacks convert to positions such as wide receiver and running back. As of the 2008 NFL draft, 96 African American quarterbacks had been drafted.
Out of the 96, over one third (33) have been converted to a position other than quarterback (Vance, 2009). For instance, Washington Redskins wide reciever Antwaan Randle El played quarterback at Indiana University where he was considered a Heisman Trophy candidate only to be converted upon his transition to the NFL. More shocking than the amount of African American quarterbacks who get converted to other positions is the few Caucasian quarterbacks that have to do the same. Only 1. 6% of Caucasian quarterbacks who have been drafted have been converted to another position. Vance, 2009). As previously stated, negative stereotypes of African Americans include being unintelligent, lazy, and troublemakers. These stereotypes typically limit the opportunity for many African Americans to play quarterback at a professional level. Traditionally, along with the middle linebacker and center position, the quarterback position has been known as a “thinking position” which requires much intelligence to play (Woodward, 2002). Unfortunately, intelligence is not a stereotype of African American football players.
In a study done by sports blogger Steve Sailer, he plotted offensive and defensive positions in football by average IQ based on the Wonderlic Test. The Wonderlic Test is a general test of problem solving that has been used by the NFL for nearly 30 years to assess NFL draft prospects (Wonderlic Sample Test ,2010). After converting the Wonderlic Test results to an IQ score, Sailer found that those positions that play closest to the ball have the highest IQ. With an exception to defensive lineman, 79% of which are African American, those positions that play closest to the ball are primarily played by Caucasians (Spicer, 2008).
Interestingly enough, those positions that play furthest away from the ball are dominated by African American players. For example, 96% of defensive backs, 92% of wide receivers, and 100% running backs who were starters during the 2008-2009 season are African American (Spicer, 2008). Besides intelligence, there are additional stereotypes that help explain why racial stacking occurs in these positions. All of the previous mentioned positions dominated by African Americans have similar requirements to be successful. They all call for speed, athleticism, and aggression, all of which are stereotypes of African American athletes.
Not only do racial stereotypes affect the athletes on the field, they have a prominent impact on the league office, owners, and coaching staff. Since 2004, the NFL has been receiving a letter grade for their hiring practices of women and people of color. The Racial Report Card considers the racial and gender make up of players, coaches, and the front office of professional sports organizations. Essentially, it asks, “Are we playing fair when it comes to sports? Does everyone, regardless of race or gender, have a chance to score a touchdown and operate the business of professional football? ” (Lapchick, 2009, p. 2).
As of the 1989 season, there had been no African American head coaches or general managers in the history of the NFL (Lapchick, 2006b). Over the past decade the National Football League has been making a concientious effort to address the lack of colored individuals in the organziation. During the past season, the NFL had received its highest grade ever of A- for racial hiring with six out of thirty-two coaches being African American (Lapchick, 2009). Although the NFL has seen an increase in the number of African American coaches and in league offices, there has still yet to be one African American CEO/President.
In addition, Amy Trask, of the Oakland Raiders, is the only woman CEO/President in the NFL (Lapchick, 2009). Despite stereotypes such as lack of intelligence that once restricted the opportunities for minorities to interview for head coaching positions, those who have been able to land such positions have shown that skin color is no determinant in success. In the past four seasons there have been four African American head coaches who have led their team to the Super Bowl (Lapchick, 2009).
Over the next few decades we can expect the number of African American coaches to increase exponentially due to the “Rooney Rule”. This NFL policy (Named after Steelers owner Dan Rooney) mandates that at least one person of color must be interviewed for all new head coaching positions. Since being implemented in 2001, this policy has tripled the number of African American head coaches (Lapchick, 2009). To conclude, despite the lingering stereotypes of African Americans, the NFL has seen a steady increase in the number of minorities in both coaching positions and league offices.
All in all, the social phenomenon of racial stacking and stereotyping within the institution of sport has profoundly hindered the development and participation of particular races in the sport of football. Although stereotypes such as African Americans being unintelligent or Caucasians being slow have affected the advancement of these races in certain aspects of the game, they are deeply based on false perception. Most races have to face stereotypes throughout their lifetime. Whether positive or negative, these stereotypes have a prominent affect on how one goes about pursuing their goals, particularly in sports.
Although stereotypes have hindered the participation of certain races in football, the culture and society in which an individual has grown up in often plays a larger role in determining success. For African Americans raised in poor families, the perspective of making millions of dollars playing in the NFL may be seen as their one opportunity for upward social mobility, while Caucasians and Asians are typically brought up in wealthier families that stress the importance of education as a way of becoming successful.
In conclusion, society must realize that whether one is white or black, male or female, poor or rich, they should have an equal opportunity to participate in sports. Due to the nature of the institutions reluctance to change, it is going to take great mental strength, dedication and perseverance in order for society to break down the barriers in sports for good.