One of the more remarkable aspects of sport in the US, football and basketball in particular, is the opportunity that it offers Black players to reach the very highest levels.
The statistics speak for themselves. In football 56.4% of all NFL players are African Americans. In basketball, it’s an even greater 73.2%. Considering that the figure for the overall population is a little over 13%, these are quite surprising numbers.
So, numerically at least, Black people are very well represented in professional football. However, when one starts to dig a little deeper into the question it becomes a far more complex picture altogether.
To give just a hint of the inequalities that may still exist in the sport, let’s go back to its biggest event of the year. While some were carefully studying the odds to win Super Bowl LVII others were noting the fact that this would be the first one ever to feature two Black quarterbacks in Jalen Hurts and Patrick Mahomes.
The fact that it took until 2023 for this to occur in a sport in which over half of the players are Black is certainly worthy of examination.
The route to the NFL
Traditionally, most players get their entrance to the NFL provided by the annual draft that they join straight from college.
While the cost of a college education may be prohibitively expensive for many African Americans the phenomenon of the sports scholarship makes it a real possibility for those showing talent and promise.
So, this is where the real opportunities start for some players, with the very best making it through to the big time. However, there are still divisions between the predominantly white colleges and those which are classed as historically black universities and colleges.
Traditionally, the former have always received more funding than HBUCs. That said, the NFL has become increasingly aware of the imbalance and is now taking steps to correct it. This isn’t specifically taking the form of increased funding, rather in greater support and initiatives.
We’ve come a long way already
Whatever the inequalities that exist today, few can deny that the sport has come a long way since the first Black player, Kenny Washington, took to the field for the LA Rams back in 1946.
But it took over two decades after that for the first ever Black quarterbacks to play in the NFL. These were Marlin Briscoe of the Denver Broncos and James Harris of the Buffalo Bills whose professional careers began in 1968 and 1969 respectively.
Today, many teams do have Black quarterbacks but research published in The Howard Journal of Communications as recently as 2008 found that they are often described or regarded in a way that perpetuates racial stereotypes. So, while they are often praised for their athleticism, white QBs are more likely to be represented as intelligent readers, and leaders, in a game.
Taking the knee
It’s against this backdrop of bias, even if it’s unconscious, that Black NFL players have sometimes used their high-profile positions to advocate for broader civil rights.
This came particularly to the fore as part of the Black Lives Matter movement that arose in 2020. In fact, it’s a practice that dates back to 2016 when the San Francisco 49ers player and Black-rights activist Colin Kaepernick and team-mate Eric Reid chose to kneel while the National Anthem was played. At the time, they were protesting about both racial inequality and police brutality.
They chose to kneel because they regarded this as a respectful gesture but one that would draw attention to their protest.
The fact that, despite some people feeling this was an inappropriate way to behave, more and more players, Black and white, have continued to perform this gesture unpunished by the NFL does suggest a certain sensitivity on the part of the sport.
The coach conundrum
One area of football that seems to be resisting the drive for diversity is in the choice of coaches for NFL teams. Of the 26 teams only 3 have Black head coaches.
Last year this inequality was brought into sharp focus following the shock dismissal of the Miami Dolphins’ Brian Flores. Following his sacking in February 2022 he brought a class-action lawsuit against the NFL citing racial discrimination across the league. In July a New York judge allowed it to go to trial, despite concerted efforts from the NFL to have it thrown out.
So, observers are watching and keenly waiting to see how it will play out when it finally gets to court.
Many are also hoping that it will prove to be a landmark moment that will see a move towards genuine equality both on and off the field of play.
When, or whether, this actually arrives, we’ll just have to wait and see.