Factors such as race and social class can impact a person’s likelihood of playing football at an elite level. (Photo by Cary Smith)

In mass media and popular culture, sport is often presented as a level playing field where the most skilled and committed athletes rise to the top. The racial composition of American football is often presented as evidence of the supposed meritocracy of sport. While 13.2 percent of the U.S. population is black, 47.1 percent of NCAA Division I football players and 68.7 percent of National Football League (NFL) players are black. Thus, if black men are more commonly from poor and working-class backgrounds compared to white men, yet are overrepresented in football, one might conclude that factors such as race and social class play little to no role in player development and selection.

Research in sociology of sport, however, tells a different story. The cultural glorification of black athletes, racial bias and discrimination in social institutions like education, racial ideologies of black physical superiority, and strong social support for sport in families and communities may lead many black men to over-identify with sport. While just 1.6 percent of NCAA football players will play professionally, one study of Division I college football players found that 85 percent of black players and 39 percent of white players aspired to the NFL.

Player selection may also be influenced by racial ideologies. Some NFL coaches and scouts buy in to a “Friday Night Lights” myth where football is perceived to be “king” in small, rural towns that are often heavily black and working class. As a result, coaches and scouts may give greater consideration to players from these backgrounds.

Questions about the roles of race and social class are important to consider when examining the extent to which sport is meritocratic. Considering race and class also sheds light on several recent controversies in football, including college and professional leagues’ handling of injury and concussion protocols and protests of racial injustice and police violence. The consequences for players participating in protest, arguing for improved injury protocols, or leaving the sport altogether may be distinct across racial and socioeconomic lines.

Yet we know little about patterns that may exist with respect to the backgrounds of players and where, exactly, they come from. The places young people grow up are important in the opportunities they provide to develop athletic talent and in the social support they provide for sports participation. With my colleagues Adriene Davis and Raymond Barranco, I asked, what hometowns are most likely to pathways into elite football? Do black and white players come from similar or different backgrounds?

To answer these questions, we compiled data from ESPN’s top-ranked incoming college football recruits over the past 10 years. We included white and black athletes for a sample of 929 players. ESPN lists each athlete’s hometown as the city of the high school the athlete attended. For each recruit, we matched the listed hometown with data on the town’s socioeconomics and demographics from the 2000 U.S. Census.

We measured per capita income, median household income, median family income, percent of the population living in poverty, percent of persons 25 years of age and older with less than a high school education, percent of vacant houses, percent unemployed, total population, housing density, and the percent of white, black, and Latino residents. We considered these to be rough measures of cultural factors related to sports participation, such as familial and community support, and structural factors like opportunities and infrastructure. We compared hometown indicators by race first for the entire sample of incoming college players and then only for the 183 players who were drafted into the NFL. We also compared against national averages on each measure.

We found that black football players come from hometowns that are more socioeconomically disadvantaged than the national average and that have a higher percent of black residents. In contrast, white players’ hometowns are smaller, less dense, less socioeconomically disadvantaged, and less black and Latino than black players’ hometowns.

These patterns intensified when we compared players who were drafted into the NFL with those who were not. Drafted black players come from hometowns that are more black and socioeconomically disadvantaged than black players who were not drafted, while white drafted players come from hometowns that are less socioeconomically disadvantaged than white non-drafted players. In summary, hometown socioeconomic disadvantage and a higher proportion of black residents are associated with black men’s participation and selection into elite football, while less hometown socioeconomic disadvantage and a higher proportion of white residents are associated with white men’s participation and selection into elite football.

While we cannot definitively explain our findings, it is likely that player development and selection in football are shaped by both race and social class background. Places with more resources tend to have more opportunities and better facilities for sport. As we show, such places increase the likelihood of white men developing their athletic skills and making it to the top echelons of football. In contrast, socioeconomic disadvantage presents fewer and lower-quality opportunities and facilities to black men. Yet socioeconomic disadvantage also limits the number and quality of opportunities for education and employment. A lack of opportunities in these areas, combined with persistent racial bias and discrimination, may make certain sports, such as football, seem like the most likely pathway to upward mobility for some black men.

By implication, if black NFL players are disproportionately from poor and working class families and disadvantaged hometowns, the financial necessity of participation in the NFL is higher for black than white players. Recent debates in football over head injury protocols and protests of racial injustice, among other issues, cannot and should not be separate from consideration of the groups of players who have the most at stake.

Rachel Allison is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and affiliate of Gender Studies at Mississippi State University. Her research examines the gender, racial, and class politics of U.S. professional sports. Her book, Kicking Center: Gender and the Selling of Women’s Professional Soccer, is forthcoming with Rutgers University Press.