racial inequality

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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Fan with a sign that reads, "we hated Kaepernick before it was cool (fot football reasons, not because we're racists)"
Many fans who object to protests by NFL players during the US National Anthem insist their opposition has nothing to do with race (photo from Idaho Statesman)

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick continued a tradition in US sports by staging a protest against racial injustice during the playing of the US national anthem. Following his initial protest, Kaepernick said:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Kaepernick’s comments were in reference to a series of deaths of unarmed Black American men, such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Reactions to Kaepernick’s protest were split. Within the NFL and beyond, many Black athletes, performers, fans, and even some coaches and officials joined in the protest against state violence in Black communities. At the same time, many others vociferously objected while claiming to not be racist. The image above illustrates the color-blind racism of the objectors; an anti-black statement of on-going hatred (“We hated Kaepernick before…”) is modified by a racially neutral phrase (“For football reasons”). The denial of racism when protesting an anti-racist protest obscures the ongoing operation of racism as a multifaceted construct that disproportionality targets Black Americans. Moreover, it prevents understanding of the US’s failure to provide equal protections for all citizens when state violence and poverty disproportionately affects Black communities.

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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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