Saturday, May 31, 2008

Academic Break Pt. 2: The Black Athlete in the NFL

For the second part of the series, I’ll look at the NFL. This is a league that doesn’t seem to have a problem with a shortage of black athletes. In fact, this Jason Whitlock article is one of the few articles I’ve been able to find about this topic in relation to the NFL.

Jason Whitlock is a writer who frequently talks about race and is someone people either love or hate. He is especially critical of young black athletes and the hip-hop culture. However, his article does show that black athletes can even be replaced in the NFL and it also touches on some of the reasons why this might happen.

A lot of black athletes come with baggage. Some of this may be related to hip-hop, but a lot of it probably just comes from their background. The Michael Vick’s and Pac Man Jones’ of the world can’t seem to shake their past. Even though they are millionaires, a lot of players still behave with a street mentality.

This isn’t something confined to the NFL, it happens with a lot of black athletes. It’s not even confined to being poor. Larry Johnson, who is frequently criticized by Whitlock and others for his attitude, comes from a pretty well off family as his father is one of Joe Paterno’s top assistants at Penn State.

In the case of Johnson and people like him, what’s usually blamed in place of poverty is hip-hop. While the messages in mainstream hip-hop can have a negative influence on some, it’s difficult to judge any of these athletes without knowing them.

Ironically, it may the stereotypes that are prevalent in the NFL that keeps black athletes prevalent in the sport. In the NFL, blacks are perceived to be less cerebral than white players, but in a lot of cases bigger, faster and stronger.

While a lot of these stereotypes are dated and no one likes to talk about it (or race really), they clearly still have an impact. Look at the NFL’s rosters. Check the running backs, wide receivers and corner backs. They’re almost all black. Those are also positions where the perception is athleticism is more important than intelligence. Quarterback is the position most associated with thinking in the NFL. Coincidentally, it’s a mostly white position in a sport with a majority of African-American players.

Some of these stereotypes are currently being broken down in college football, where you see things like black quarterbacks, white running backs and receivers, etc. at a much higher rate than in the NFL. We’ll see if these changes have any true impact in the league.

Another thing that has prevented the black athlete in the NFL from becoming undesirable is the way the NFL is marketed to the consumers. We get to “know” very few of the players off the field. Those we do see in commercials and feature stories are usually the cleaner cut players, the Peyton Mannings, Tom Brady’s and LaDanian Tomlinsons.

Part of the reason we don’t really get to know the players is the way the game is played. Players are covered in equipment from head to toe. A few years ago, the NFL even banned players from taking off their helmet when scoring a touchdown.

We don’t see their tattoos or earrings, and during this past offseason the league considered banning long hair so we couldn’t see players’ dreadlocks either. This prevents the players from being judged on their appearance, like the NBA.

More NFL players probably get in trouble than NBA players, but which league has an image problem? Which league is full of “thugs?”

Without saying so, the NFL has been able to essentially hide most of its black athletes from the mostly white fans that fill its arenas. With the race of the players covered up, it becomes something you don’t think about as much as you would watching an NBA game.

So, interestingly enough, stereotypes and marketing tactics might be what keeps black athletes flourishing in the NFL.

No comments: