Black people make up 13% of the population of the United States, but they make up a whopping 70% of players in the NFL. Currently, only 1 out of 32 head coaches in the NFL are Black, and none of the owners of NFL clubs are Black. In 2000 the NFL actually instituted the so-called Rooney Rule which mandated that teams need to interview at least one “ethnic minority” candidate for head coach and other senior positions. But this clearly hasn’t made much difference to the numbers of Black coaches. It’s in this context that former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores has announced his intention to sue the NFL for racist hiring practices.
So what’s going on here and what does it tell us about the position of Black people in the NFL and in American society? Let me say from the start that the idea of beseeching White owners and decision makers to be nice and start hiring more Black coaches, is an almost ludicrous idea. The lack of Black coaches, and the lack of Black owners, is not caused by flaws of individual bad apples. This isn’t a personal failings issue. Rather, it is a product of Antiblackness that his rooted deeply within American society. It’ll take something much, much more fundamental to resolve this issue.
White Supremacy and Antiblackness
From a critical perspective, the first and most obvious thing to keep in mind is that Black people were brought to the shores of what is now the United States in order to provide labour. Though slavery formally ended in the nineteenth century, labour has remained the main thing that White America has wanted from Black people. Centuries of sustained and violent efforts have ensured that Black people in America have remained in essentially the same position as they were in the 1800s in terms of their structural relationship with White people. This relationship can be likened to the relationship of an imperial power to a colony. One of the key economic features of such relationships is that the colony is made to supply unskilled labour to the imperial power, and little more.
Sport is a wonderful demonstration of this truth. Players provide labour, basically. Physical labour. So the fact that Black men make up 70% of NFL players shouldn’t surprise anyone. Similar proportions can be found in other fields such as the NBA, where around 75% of players are Black (https://www.statista.com/statistics/1167867/nba-players-ethnicity/).
But if you look more closely, you find that even among the players, there’s a racial division in terms of playing positions. And this is where we can see the deeper reasons behind the absence of Black coaches. The Quarterback is seen as the most prized position on the field. He is the person who is meant to use his intellect to dictate the team’s play. The quarterback is thus usually the highest paid player, and the one with the most prestige, honour and adulation. It shouldn’t surprise you to learn, then, that there haven’t been many Black quarterbacks in NFL history. The highest proportion being around 30% at any given time.
An article in the UK Guardian gives some useful insight into this topic with the following: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/sep/20/black-quarterbacks-history-stereotypes
“The NFL’s story began with a standout African American quarterback: Fritz Pollard, a chemistry major and All-American at Brown University, led the Akron Pros to the league’s inaugural championship in 1920.
In 1933, however, the NFL secretly decided to ban black players – reportedly at the behest of former Washington owner George Preston Marshall, a committed segregationist.…
The ban mirrored the status of black Americans at the time: separate, unequal and living in a de facto apartheid state via Jim Crow in the South and a patchwork of exclusionary laws and customs everywhere else.
The ban also was rooted in the widespread, racist beliefs about black inferiority that underpinned segregation. In the early part of the 20th century…whites assumed that African-Americans lacked the physical stamina and emotional courage to excel at contact sports like boxing and football.
After Jack Johnson became the first African American heavyweight champion in 1908 – and then defeated “great white hope” James J Jeffries in a 1910 bout that triggered white race riots across the country – that assumption morphed.
“You had the Negro Leagues in baseball, and similar kinds of [segregated black] teams in football and basketball… So what happened over time is that the racial ideology changed.
“Whites accepted that blacks were physically evolved, but decided that they were intellectually un-evolved – that they were actually lower on the ladder of evolution than white people, and somehow closer to our animal ancestors. And that’s the ideology, the cultural context, that prevailed when the major sports in the US were desegregated…
>>>As we’ll see a little later, this idea of Blacks being closer to animals was far from a new one. Rather, it goes right back the foundational period of modernity in the 1700s. But returning to the article we read:
…As football and American society continued to desegregate in the 1960s and 70s, the sport was rife with what sociologists call “racial stacking” – a sorting process in which individuals are funneled into certain positions based on stereotypes.
From Pop Warner to the NFL, the down-the-middle positions of center, inside linebacker and quarterback were considered to be “thinking” spots. As such, they were seen as too cerebral for African American athletes, who additionally were thought to lack the leadership and grit to lead other players and perform under duress.”
Language used to describe Black QBs
There have been lots of studies into the kind of language used to describe players, and how it reflects racial stereotypes. For example, a Bleacher Report article tells us that: https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2766425-ditch-the-racially-coded-language-lamar-jackson-is-no-ones-wide-receiver
“The Washington Post studied NFL draft profiles and “found substantial racial differences in the language used to describe quarterback prospects—differences that are consistent with established racial stereotypes.”
It notes how a white quarterback is more likely to be discussed by citing “intangible internal qualities for which he himself is responsible.” However, a black quarterback is more often viewed by his physical characteristics, “to be judged erratic and unpredictable, and to have his successes and failures ascribed to outside forces.”
While reading up for this video, I came across this idea of Race Norming which is used in the NFL. An excellent piece in the Scientific American explains that:
“On June 2, 2021, the National Football League (NFL) announced it would discontinue the use of race norming—the practice of assuming a lower baseline of cognitive abilities in Black players—in legal settlements for concussion-related injuries…
In 2013, the NFL settled for $765 million after more than 4,500 retired players brought concussion-related lawsuits against the league. In theory, approximately 18,000 former players were eligible to receive the settlement, which is meant to cover compensation, medical exams, further research, and legal fees for concussion-related neurological diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). While this settlement seemed like a victory to some, Black players quickly found out that it would be harder to access these funds because the NFL required that cognitive tests used be adjusted for race. With this in mind, [two former Pittsburgh stealer’s Players] filed a lawsuit against the NFL in the fall of 2020.
“Black former players are automatically assumed… to have started with worse cognitive functioning than White former players. As a result, if a Black former player and a White former player receive the exact same raw scores on a battery of tests designed to measure their current cognitive functioning, the Black player is presumed to have suffered less impairment, and he is therefore less likely to qualify for compensation,” their lawsuit contended.
The June announcement was, rightly, met with shock that the practice had even been in use. But for those of us who are attuned to the actions and strategies of the most profitable and popular professional sport league in the United States, the news wasn’t much of a surprise. It is just the latest example on the laundry list of the NFL’s anti-Black, racist and discriminatory practices over the past decades.”
In his book “Black Skin, White Masks” Franz Fanon refered to a phenomenon called epidermalisation. This is when people have negative characteristics ascribed to them because they have a particular skin colour and other physiological characteristics. In this case, the powers that be in the NFL already have the idea that Blacks are physical and unintellectual, and so they ascribe these characteristics to the Black athletes. And critically, these people have the power to literally shape the potential outcomes for these Black athletes.
It’s really important to set all of this in context. These anti-black ideas and practices did not drop out of the sky suddenly. These aren’t NFL-issues. Like every institution and sport, the NFL and American Football reflects the society they are part of. And one of the foundational ideas of this world is the idea that Black people are the lowest rung of humanity.
One of the originators of the very idea of distinct human races was a Swedish intellectual called Carl Linneas who is referred to as the father of taxonomy – the classification of things in nature.
Linnaeus’ work on the classification of man forms one of the 18th-century roots of modern scientific racism. He groups men into four kinds, Asiaticus, Europaeus, Americanus and Africanus. Though the order changed over the various updates to his schema, Africanus consistently remained at the bottom of the list. Moreover, in all editions, Linnaeus’ description of Africanus was the longest, most detailed and physical, and also the most negative. He refers to them, as lazy, Sly, sluggish, neglectful and capricious. https://www.linnean.org/learning/who-was-linnaeus/linnaeus-and-race#:~:text=Linnaeus%20was%20the%20first%20naturalist,later%20on%20in%20his%20career.
This helped set the trend for European race science, with revered intellectuals and academics such as David Hume, Immanuel Kant and George Hegel waxing lyrical about the alleged inferiority of Black people. These ideas subsequently dripped into everyday tropes and beliefs about Black people. The practice of race norming in the NFL reflects this widely-held (but not so openly discussed) idea that Black people have a genetically-determined low level of intelligence, and that this helps to explain us being at the bottom of the social ladder almost everywhere in the world. I recommend a Washington Post article from 2019 called “A Brief History of the enduring phony science that perpetuates white supremacy” for a good overview of this rich tradition: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/a-brief-history-of-the-enduring-phony-science-that-perpetuates-white-supremacy/2019/04/29/20e6aef0-5aeb-11e9-a00e-050dc7b82693_story.html
I’ll close by going back to the lawsuit being brought against the NFL by the Black former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores. I commend him for bring the issue of racist hiring practices to the forefront of people’s minds, and I’ll be watching the progress of the lawsuit with interest. But while some incremental progress might be made, I think Black people and others should be paying more attention to the deeper factors at play, and I hope this video has been helpful in this regard.