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The Undefeated Explores Segregation in the NFL

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An in-depth look at race as a determinant for players’ positions on a team

TheUndefeated.com, ESPN’s year-old platform focusing on the intersections of sports, race and culture, has published Segregation in the NFL – an in-depth examination of the complex role race plays in determining which players play certain positions on NFL teams.

NFL locker rooms are among the most diverse workplaces on the planet, yet the individual positions on team rosters can resemble the black and white squares of a chess board in terms.

In this week’s NFL Draft, Stanford University’s Christian McCaffrey is expected to be the first white tailback selected in the first round in decades. The story of the running back position is part of a much bigger narrative about race and football, dating back to a time when African-Americans were unofficially banned from playing in the NFL. Even today, the racial composition of NFL lineups is shaped as much by societal factors as the inclination of decision-makers to stick with what has worked so well for so long.

Highlights:

  • According to the annual racial and gender report card published by TIDES (The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports), the NFL is almost 70 percent black, and only 12.5 percent of running backs are white, based on the most recent statistics (from 2014). Stanford’s McCaffrey is expected to become the first white tailback selected in the first round of the draft in more than 40 years.
  • Black players historically were blocked from playing quarterback in the NFL, but the emergence of young superstars such as Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Dak Prescott and others have proved over and over again that those anachronistic ideas about leadership and intellect are no longer applicable.
  • Despite a nearly 50-50 racial split on the offensive line, more than 81 percent of players at the center position are white. Conversely, 99.4 percent of cornerbacks are African-American.

Key quotes:

  • “I have a chip on my shoulder at all times. I’m constantly trying to prove myself.” — 2017 NFL Draft running back prospect Christian McCaffrey.
  • “I was fast. Let me run and play in space. But they just looked at me and thought, ‘safety,’” — Former NFL player Jason Sehorn, the last white starting cornerback in the league.
  • “If you want to look at the white side of the NFL, you can look at quarterbacks, kickers, punters, centers and, to some extent, backup quarterbacks. Teams, leagues, are great imitators. If somebody is having success with a corner covering a particular type of wide receiver, everyone wants that same type of corner. If somebody’s having success with a particular center calling the offensive line blocking schemes and so forth, everybody wants that same type of center.” — Sociologist Harry Edwards.
  • “You have to look at the history of pro sports in this country to understand how slowly things changed in the NFL with certain positions. In football, the ‘thinking’ positions down the middle – quarterback, center, [inside] linebacker – were the ones that we weren’t allowed to play.” — Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon.

The Undefeated is ESPN’s content hub exploring the intersections of sports, race and culture. Launched on May 17, 2016, TheUndefeated.com combines innovative long-form and short-form storytelling, investigation, original reporting and provocative commentary to enlighten and entertain African Americans, as well as sports fans seeking a deeper understanding of black athletes, culture and related issues.

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