Race in the NFL Draft

A close look at the words used to describe white and black athletes in scouting reports.
Author:
Publish date:
(Photo: Brocreative/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Brocreative/Shutterstock)

In case you were wondering, race is still important in the U.S., including in American sports. Deadspin put out a neat tool just in time for NFL draft weekend, allowing readers to see for themselves just how often different words are used to describe white and black athletes in draft scouting reports. It turns out, for example, that a black prospect’s report is more likely to mention his “motor,” while the typical white player is more likely to be called a “worker.” “Freakish” shows up five times in black reports, and never in a white player’s. Black players are also more likely to be called “coachable.”

I downloaded the data to find out just what the “blackest” and “whitest’ words were. I then drew out the 50 words most likely associated with black and white athletes, respectively. The words are all vaguely football-ish, but upon reflection distinctive patterns emerge.

Some words leap out immediately. Reports on black athletes are far more likely to include the word “mother.” Conversely, white athletes’ reports mention “brothers” more often. Black players’ reports more often include “driving”; reports on white athletes mention “drive.”

Dig a bit deeper, and some groupings appear. I created five rough categories for the most common “black” words, and another four for the most common "white: words:

I was quite surprised just how pervasive the old tropes of the smart white leader athletes, and the talented and physical black athletes remain. The word “accuracy” is more than 12 times more likely to be associated with a white player than his black counterpart. Likewise, the words “understands,”(3.9 times) “intelligence” (3.0 times), and the sneaky “intangibles” (3.9 times) are all far more likely to be associated with white athletes.

Conversely, reports on black athletes are more likely to include “leaping” (6.3 times), “upright” (10.4 times), and “violent” (5.1 times). They comparatively rarely include words associated with quarterbacking, intelligence, or leadership.

What the numbers can’t tell us is how much of the difference can be ascribed to the scouts themselves allowing biases to creep in, and how much reflects ways in which athletes have been shaped to this point (i.e., coached to be violent, encouraged to become leaders, etc.). This is obviously an important question, but either way it is clear that race remains a hugely important filter affecting life chances, even in something as supposedly meritocratic as professional and near-professional sports.

This post originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “Race in the NFL Draft.”

Related