college football

Deion Sanders, a Black man who coaches the Jackson State University football team, is pictured on the sideline using a knee scooter due to an injury.
Coach Deion Sanders on the Jackson State sideline at the 2021 SWAC Championship (photo via 2C2K Photography licensed under CC BY 2.0)

For many people across the U.S., the summer of 2020 felt as if racial tension reached a fever pitch. The murder of George Floyd was met with anger, outrage, and a great deal of political banter among elected officials. Following the summer of 2020, there was a wave of discussion about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) across the sporting/corporate world, along with a related “resurgence” of attention to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), with a particular focus on athletics. But please don’t call it a comeback, ‘cause HBCUs have been here for years. It is only now that the national sports media has shone a spotlight on decades of systemic financial and racial inequalities that have led to top Black students and athletes being lured away from HBCUs to predominantly white institutions (PWIs).

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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.

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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.

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College football in the U.S. draws millions of fans each year, but we often fail to think about the academic experience of the players on the field. (Photo by Ben Stanfield)

As we enter the heart of another college football season in the U.S., millions of fans flock to stadiums and gather around televisions each Saturday. Sometimes forgotten in the hype and excitement that surrounds the sport is the fact that the players on the field not only are athletes, but also students who must devote a substantial portion of their time throughout the week to academics. As stated in the tagline of a memorable National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) branding campaign, “there are over 380,000 student-athletes, and most of us go pro in something other than sports.” In football, only about 1.5% of college players will go on to the NFL. Given this reality, it’s important for college athletes to gain meaningful value from their education to help them succeed in careers beyond sport. In fact, the NCAA’s rhetoric often reinforces the idea that the academic experience is of first and foremost importance for college athletes.

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The football programs at Baylor University and the University of Oklahoma made headlines in 2016 due to criminal behavior by team members. (Photo by Alonzo Adams/AP)

As we welcome another college football season, players, coaches, and fans are busy breaking down rosters, reviewing schedules and predicting which four teams will remain in the hunt for a national championship on New Year’s Day.

The arrival of a new season is an especially welcomed sight for the Big 12 Conference, with the 2016 season being such a forgettable one. Not only was the conference left out of the College Football Playoff, but two of their featured programs dealt with major issues and violations relating to the criminal behavior of their student-athletes. Baylor University fired head coach Art Briles and several high level university administrators in the wake of a sexual assault scandal involving numerous football players, and the University of Oklahoma had two players in Joe Mixon and Dede Westbrook that garnered national attention for their off-field issues. A video of Mixon striking a woman in 2014 was released, and it was reported that Westbrook had twice been arrested on domestic violence charges.

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University of Minnesota football players stand behind senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky as he reads a statement about the team’s boycott to media members. (Photo from the Minneapolis Star Tribune)

Sexual violence in college sport represents an important problem that coaches and administrators must address. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the government has conducted 365 investigations of colleges for possibly mishandling reports of sexual violence since 2011. A simple search in the Chronicle’s Title IX database using the terms “football” and “sexual assault” yields around 250 matches for currently open investigations and 49 matches for cases that have been resolved. Further, roughly half of the student athletes surveyed in a recent study admitted to committing coercive sexual behaviors. Scholars have been investigating the relationship between college football and sexual violence for a long time, and the problem has not gone unnoticed by journalists, critics, and higher education administrators.

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