Consider This On NFL Draft Weekend: How We Talk About Athletes Might Betray Racial Bias

April 25, 2019
Photo: Tom Brady 1 AP 20190424
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady waits to take the field against the New York Jets Nov. 25, 2018, in East Rutherford, N.J. 

You hear it all the time when you turn on a sporting event: Announcers gush over the “athleticism” of a wide receiver. Or how “intelligent” the quarterback is.

When broadcasters say these things, University of Colorado journalism professor Pat Ferrucci points out they’re often stereotyping athletes by their race. Ferrucci has written academic papers — about baseball, basketball and football — that demonstrate how these stereotypes impact the perception of athletes based on their race.

Positions on the playing field are often determined by those stereotypes. According to a 2016 NFL Census from ProFootballLogic, 97 percent of running backs were black, while 82 percent of quarterbacks were white.

The picture is much different in youth sports.

Mike Weinstein, the founder of Broomfield-based athletic testing company Zybek Sports, has data that shows race doesn’t matter when it comes to how youths perform athletically. So it’s only as athletes move through high school, college and the pros, where they are stacked in positions that fit society’s racial narratives.

Interview Highlights

How do sports journalists stereotype athletes by the language they use?

Pat Ferrucci: "Sports broadcasters and journalists tend to use very specific descriptors when talking about athletes. And that depends on race. So if you're a white athlete, you're typically described in ways concerning intelligence or effort or leadership. Black athletes are more about physical strength or natural ability. Asian athletes are intelligent team players, things like that. And none of these are necessarily bad, right? They're all kind of positive attributes. But when we keep using them in terms of one specific race, it becomes this kind of snowball rolling down a hill to where we look at athletes through this prism of these descriptors that are related to race."

Does that make the NFL tale of Tom Brady’s leadership and Cam Newton’s athletic ability a loaded description?

PF: "Tom Brady is still playing at a high level, he’s been in the league 18 years, and he's never called athletic. Maybe he doesn't run as fast as somebody else, but there's no way you can do what he's done without being athletic. Instead, all of his successes are attributed to his intelligence or his leadership. It makes it seem like what he’s doing on the field isn't really God-given or whatever we want to call it, that natural ability thing. And (black athletes) are described as athletic; (The stereotype goes): they're just athletic and it's not really an effort thing and there's no leadership. They're just born this way and they're going to excel for that reason. So they're not thought of necessarily as team players."

Photo: Tom Brady 2 AP 20190424
Tom Brady, left, and Gisele Bundchen attend the 2019 Hollywood for Science Gala on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, in Los Angeles. 

Do media representations of these athletes affect audiences?

PF: "We did a bunch of experiments where…  we showed pictures of people that they didn't know. One person is black, the other is white. And they have the exact same paragraph written about them about their intelligence. So if the same paragraph is talking about how smart somebody is, and there's just this picture, you would think that the person would rate the athletes the same as far as intelligence, but they don't. They always rank the white person more intelligent than the black person, even though they don't know who these people are. So yes, these representations in the case of sports, and I would say across society, they matter."

What does athletic testing show?

Mike Weinstein: "We measure how fast athletes run, how high they jump; what their general athleticism is. We do exactly what's done at the NFL scouting combine, but for the youth. Every athlete across the nation is being measured for their athleticism the exact same way. And what I'm seeing traveling across the nation, totally supports Pat’s research that many people just feel that blacks make better athletes. Or I'll hear the statement that professional sports is racist because there's not enough black quarterbacks. So what I found from my research though, is that there is no difference at the youth level for an individual's athleticism. We've looked at the data every which way, from 30,000 athletes and their ethnicities. And the data shows that there's zero difference in the athleticism of the black athletes versus the white."

Why are athletes moved into stereotypical positions on the field?

MW: "If you're an aspiring athlete, you're looking at what the media is showing you and you're looking at who has succeeded in professional sports, and you're just naturally aligning yourselves with those positions. But what I'd like to really make the point is that athletically, there's no difference and that the athletes should really be choosing what position they would be better off playing based on their skills and their capabilities, versus what the societal norm is."