Student Athletes from the Sierra College Football team play in the pre-season football scrimmage at Sierra College in Rocklin, Calif. on August 20, 2016. A quarterback with the football attempts to break away from the grasp of a defensive player. The first game of the season will be at the Rocklin stadium on September 3rd against Fresno City College at 2:00 PM.
A substantial body of research has documented racial stacking–the tendency of athletes from certain racial groups to be disproportionately represented in particular positions and roles on a team (photo by davidmoore326, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Racial stacking – the tendency of certain racial groups to be overrepresented in particular positions on sports teams – is a longstanding issue in numerous sports, including college football. Even though the last of the segregated college football programs disappeared in the early 1970s, racial disparities still exist on the field today. Even someone observing American football for the first time might notice that white and black players tend to occupy different roles and positions on the field. To explore these issues, I conducted a study – recently published in Sociology of Sport Journal (unpaywalled version) – to provide a contemporary picture of if and how stacking persists in college football. I also looked beyond race and examined the social class origins of college football players at different schools and playing positions. Social class reflects economic forces that affect the development of talent, as well as athletic outcomes. I learned that race and class intersect in both high school and college to provide different playing opportunities and outcomes for black and while players.

The study was based on a combination of three datasets. First, I collected data from university athletics webpages for 41,484 football players. Specifically, the websites included player pictures, positions, hometowns, and high schools. Second, the National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data and Private School Survey was used to garner information on the racial composition of players’ high schools. Third, data on median household incomes for high school zip codes were taken from the American Community Survey.

Results showed that positional stacking is still prominent in college football. On team rosters, white players are disproportionately quarterbacks, offensive linemen, and kickers/punters. Black players are disproportionately running backs, defensive linemen, wide receivers, and defensive backs. However, stacking is influenced by the institutional opportunity structures of high school and college football programs. Opportunities for black athletes to play stereotypically white positions are most likely to emerge in high schools and colleges where teams are predominantly comprised of black players. Likewise, when white athletes play stereotypically black positions, they tend to come from whiter high schools and play on whiter college teams. Put simply, opportunities for whites and blacks to play non-stereotypical positions at the high school or college level are more likely to emerge when there are few or no other personnel options for coaches.

In order to highlight one specific example of how institutions influence player stacking and opportunity structures, I compared positional stacking on football teams from “predominantly white” academically elite conferences (Ivy, Patriot, NESCAC, and Centennial) with teams from conferences of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) (MEAC, SWAC, CIAA, and SIAC). When a black athlete plays football on a predominantly white team, they are quite likely to play a stereotypically black position. For example, 30% of black football players at historically white schools play defensive back, even though defensive backs only comprise 14% of Division I football rosters. In contrast, 19% of black players at HBCUs play defensive back. White players are five times more likely to play quarterback than black players in “predominantly white” conferences, although this gap closes to 1.8 times more likely at the HBCUs. Of the 132 white players in those four HBCU conferences, 42% are either kickers, punters, or long snappers. Although those three particular positions are relatively low-status specialist roles, this raises the question of why even at HBCUs, black athletes are less likely to be recruited or developed to play those positions.

Examining the median household incomes for the zip codes of players’ high schools provides another angle on stacking and player opportunities. The average annual income of high school zip codes for white players was $13,000 higher than black players in Division I football and $10,000 higher in Division III. For white players, there was no meaningful relationship between high school income and position. In other words, white players come from relatively similar economic backgrounds, regardless of what position they play.

In contrast, black players come from different economic backgrounds depending on their collegiate position. Paradoxically, black players playing stereotypically black positions (running back, defensive back) tended to come from wealthier schools. In contrast, black players playing stereotypically white positions (quarterback, kicker/punter) came from the poorest backgrounds. Specifically, black quarterbacks’ family incomes were $5,000 less than black running backs, wide receivers, and defensive backs based on zip code data. These results may be surprising, given the importance of the quarterback position both in the game and as a cultural totem for organizational leadership.

So, what causes this paradox? Recall the previous results showing that opportunities for black players to play non-stereotypical positions are more likely to emerge in high schools and colleges with a greater proportion of black players. Thus, it follows that black quarterbacks are more likely to develop and be given opportunities in less-wealthy institutions. Given the competitive disadvantages of playing at economically poorer high schools, as well as underfunding of many HBCU’s – both as athletic programs and schools – opportunities for black athletes at less-wealthy (and less-white) institutions are often a double-edged sword. Playing for college teams representing (often well-resourced) predominately white institutions may be a desirable opportunity for black athletes. However, this upward institutional mobility may circumscribe opportunities for black athletes within stereotypical roles in the football field, if not also on campus. Consequently, some have argued that the prestige and resources of many predominantly white colleges do not outweigh the disadvantages of such institutions for racial minorities.

There are also significant racial differences within the quarterback position. College recruits are distinguished between “pro-style” (passing-oriented) and “dual threat” (running and passing) quarterbacks. Of the 50 top-ranked pro-style quarterbacks by at the time of the study, 39 (78%) were white and eight (16%) were black. In contrast, 31 (62%) of the top fifty dual-threat quarterbacks were black, while 18 (36%) were white.

Passing-oriented offenses tend to be resource-intensive. Extra coaches and video resources facilitate the installation of more complex offenses. For example, compare former Pro Bowl QB Neil Lomax “running the snot” out of the same eight running plays at an impoverished Portland (OR) high school with suburban high schools boasting $70 million stadiums. If complex passing offenses are favored by NFL teams – and many college teams hoping to place players in the NFL – it follows that high schools with more resources will be more likely to produce passing quarterbacks. This renders black athletes less likely to play quarterback – especially at wealthier and whiter schools – as they are more likely to develop running skills if they do play quarterback. Running QBs can be successful in college in running-based offenses like the triple option, but are seldom considered as professional prospects.

While college football is just a game – albeit one worth billions of dollars annually and with glaring ethical issues about player health and compensation – this study raises a number of important issues on and off the field. Sports are often symbolic microcosms of the broader society. Equality of opportunity is seen as a virtue in most societies, both as an axiom of meritocracy, and as a means of developing the best possible talent. College football involves racial, institutional, and social class factors that result in different roles and market outcomes for different players. Leadership or stereotype-defying opportunities for minorities may tend to emerge in economically poorer contexts, while upward mobility into wealthier, whiter institutions may circumscribe opportunities for racial minorities.

Dr. Kyle Siler is a sociologist at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex. His research mostly focuses on risk and innovation in science. He also studies sport from an organizational theory perspective. A recent preprint analyzes how luck in the National Football League influences subsequent decision-making and performance. Kyle received his Ph.D. from the Cornell University Department of Sociology.