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Study: Racial Stereotypes May Be Leaving Black Quarterbacks On The Sidelines

Craig Hawkins

Colin Kaepernick still doesn’t have a team. While many are accusing the NFL of colluding against Kaepernick for his political beliefs -- highlighted when he took a knee during the national anthem last season -- two new studies suggest there may be more subtle forces at work.

Patrick Ferrucci, assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, says that unconscious biases against black people play a large role in the public’s perception of football players, and what position they are expected to fill.


While black quarterbacks have had success in recent years (three of the past four Super Bowls have featured black quarterbacks) the number of black quarterbacks has declined since the early 2000's. During the 2015 season — the most recent year covered by the study — only 14 percent of pro quarterbacks who threw a minimum of 100 passes were black, down from a historical high-water mark of 35 percent in 2001.


So, how is the decline explained? Ferrucci says it’s because of stereotypes.


“Prior research shows that white quarterbacks tend to be described as intelligent or good leaders, while black quarterbacks tend to be described as physically strong or naturally gifted,” says Ferrucci. “And we were looking to see whether if people actually apply those stereotypes. What we found was, yes, they do, depending on their race.”


To test his theory, Ferrucci and other researchers recruited both white and black college students and asked them to rate descriptions and photos of either black or white pro quarterbacks. They framed responses based on specific traits, such as physical strength, natural ability, leadership and intelligence.

The study found that white participants did stereotype black quarterbacks, but more surprising was that black participants did, too -- and more strongly. According to the researchers, this suggests stereotypes about black quarterbacks are so ingrained that black players may not believe they are cut out to be a professional quarterback.


This comes from a phenomenon that's called social identity theory, according to Ferrucci.


“It's the idea that we put people where we think they fit best based on a lot of stereotypes,” he says. “So, if I were to give you a bunch of photos of black and white football players and I said put them put them in the position you think they would play, you might put black players more in terms of skill positions like wide receiver or cornerback because we think of black athletes as more athletic and there's lots of studies that back that up.”


Ferrucci believes black participants are more likely to stereotype because they’ve heard so much about black quarterbacks’ supposed strengths and weaknesses. These ingrained stereotypes could affect how adolescents view themselves through sports.


The second study sampled only white participants. It found even when a black quarterback was identified as exceptionally intelligent, white participants didn’t rate the quarterback as being as intelligent as a white quarterback.


“Some of the implications are if people are still applying common stereotypes to professional quarterbacks they're definitely applying common stereotypes in real life which could have a lot more negative implications than just stereotyping quarterbacks and professional football,” he says.


The first study has been published in the Howard Journal of Communications. The second has been published in the International Journal of Communication.