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Utah State University Sociology professors Christy Glass and Guadalupe Marquez-Velarde belong to a team of researchers taking a closer look at race in the NFL. Their research used data spanning 60 years to show that Black athletes are segregated into the league's highest-risk positions while white players still dominate the highest-paying roles.
Glass, Marquez-Velarde, and their co-authors — researchers from Harvard, Morehouse, University of Massachusetts, and an independent sports analyst — have found that while Black and African American athletes make up the majority of NFL players, they have not been given equal access to the most prestigious and lucrative positions within the league.
“Just because an organization is highly diverse doesn't mean that it's equal,” said Marquez-Velarde, an assistant professor of sociology specializing in systems of inequality. “Even though the majority are Black players, they're still getting the short end of the stick.”
Black football players are more likely to end up in positions carrying a higher risk of career-ending injuries and long-term neurological damage. The study, which relies on a data set of more than 20,000 NFL players from 1960 to 2020, found that Black players are more likely to play in wide receiver, linebacker, and safety positions, and previous evidence indicates these roles are more prone to injuries than positions dominated by white players: quarterbacks, centers, and kickers.
Furthermore, the study’s findings, which appeared in Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, assert that racial hierarchies are replicated in other aspects of the organization and that racism continues to shape the experiences of Black players.
Together with an epidemiologist and a historian, USU’s sociologists teamed up with co-directors of the Football Players Health Study at Harvard Medical School “to analyze racialized patterns in player position and career duration.” The data set was provided by Hidden Game Sports, a professional-grade sports database used by major sports media organizations like ESPN.
The study’s authors identified three patterns. Cumulative hyper-segregation refers to positions that “began as white-dominated positions and over time came to be comprised of mostly Black players.” Positions where little change has occurred (i.e., kicker/punter and quarterback), represent a pattern known as durable segregation because white players have dominated these roles over time. Finally, cumulative integration references positions that have come to be “relatively equally represented by Black and white players.” In doing so, the study found that “race was a significant predictor of position status.”
Glass says that while the NFL was officially desegrated in 1946, the league’s coaches, owners, and those with the most influential positions on the field remain white.
“This research speaks to the endurance of racist stereotypes that depict whites as embodying leadership qualities, intellect, strategic outlooks … and depict Black men as naturally physically talented and strong and fast but lacking in the qualities that are needed for leadership on and off the field,” said Glass, a professor of Sociology focused on workplace inequality. “And we can trace these stereotypes back to the beginning of American history.”
The study also determined that Black players were sometimes compelled to switch positions ahead of the draft to make them more competitive. This is because they might not be perceived as possessing quarterback qualities.
In reviewing the 60-year data set, researchers noted that players were subject to bias, which tended to favor “brains” for strategic positions and “brawn” for more physical roles. This has resulted in a segregated league, or a “paradox of integration,” in which Black football players are often passed over for positions that carry the lowest risk and come with higher salaries, endorsement deals, and opportunities for advancement. In this way, the NFL mirrors racial hierarchies seen in other organizations and societal structures.
“The league is such that the quarterback is the steppingstone to post-career opportunities, coaching opportunities, sportscasting, incredibly lucrative opportunities,” Glass said. “And so, by shutting Black players out of that, not only are you channeling them into the most high-risk positions, you're also gatekeeping opportunities that white players have post career.”
USU’s researchers and their co-authors concluded that increased player diversity in the NFL has not succeeded in overcoming ingrained systems of racial inequality and suggested that a study of racial integration among head coaches, administrators, and team owners could offer insights into “how NFL organizations incorporate Black individuals into leadership positions.”
“We were able to trace … the history of the NFL and look at some of the policies that they have implemented … to reach more racial equality. But at the end of the day, it just has not materialized,” Marquez-Velarde said. “We are not the first people to undertake this kind of research, but we are the ones who have the most comprehensive data.”
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