White Tailbacks out of the Running

Phil Taylor, Sports Illustrated, November 30, 2009

(Editor’s note: This story appeared in the Nov. 30, 2009, issue of Sports Illustrated. The statistics have since been updated.)

They will usually accept the backhanded compliments without complaint: “Hey, you’re pretty fast for a white dude.” They will smile when they get tagged with a nickname like Eminem or K-Fed. (Get it? They’re Caucasian guys trying to do what African-Americans tend to do better.) White running backs will take all the good-natured teasing you’ve got, and they’ll ask for only one thing in return–the football.

{snip} You’re more likely to see Bill Belichick dance the hokeypokey on the sideline than find a white tailback in the NFL. There isn’t a single white feature back on any of the 32 teams; the Bengals’ Brian Leonard leads all white rushers in carries, with 25 (for 67 yards). White running backs break through slightly more often on the college level, where Stanford’s Toby Gerhart leads in the nation in rushing–but there is only one other white back, Nevada’s Luke Lippincott, among the top 50 ground-gainers. Of the BCS teams Stanford is the only one whose primary running back is white.

Maybe you’re thinking that the racial imbalance is because Caucasian backs just can’t keep up. You watch Adrian Peterson and Maurice Jones-Drew and say, “Find me a white runner who can do that.” But there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that white backs haven’t been competing just against other players; they’ve also been battling the perception that they’re not cut out for the job. {snip}

{snip}

For those who do reach the NFL, the path doesn’t get any easier. In 2003 Brock Forsey was a Bears backup who started one game in place of injured starter Anthony Thomas and was spectacular, rushing for 134 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries. The next week Thomas returned to the lineup and Forsey went back to the bench, getting only three carries. He never started another NFL game. “It’s hard to tell exactly what happened,” says Forsey, who starred at Boise State and is now an executive at a title and escrow company in Nampa, Idaho. “No one ever said anything about race. But there may be some preconceived notions out there. A white guy from Idaho isn’t what you have in mind when you envision an NFL running back.”

Evaluating players shouldn’t be about what we envision but what we see. That lesson should have been learned from the decades of discrimination against black quarterbacks at colleges and in the pros. Despite the obvious parallels, no one seems to be as concerned that white tailbacks are getting the same treatment. “I did dozens of interviews about the lack of opportunity for an African-American to be a QB back in the 1980s and early ’90s,” says Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at Central Florida, “but this is only the second time I have been asked about the lack of opportunity for whites to be running backs.” Maybe that’s because racism isn’t the culprit here; it’s mostly white coaches and talent evaluators who are choosing black running backs over white ones. But it doesn’t make the color line any less real.

It’s not that football needs to aim for some acceptable distribution of races throughout the field, and it’s not that every white would-be tailback who is passed over or directed to a different position is the victim of stereotyping. It’s about equality of opportunity, just as it has always been. The sports world may be enlightened enough not to immediately dismiss the idea of African-Americans as quarterbacks or coaches anymore, but maybe we haven’t come as far as we thought. Maybe we’ve just found a new demographic to discourage. {snip}

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