October 07, 2009

Let’s celebrate diversity! In Division 1-A college football, 19 of the top 20 players in rushing yards are”€”as sports fans expect”€”black. Yet, the #1 rusher is a white guy.

Toby Gerhart, Stanford’s 235-pound tailback, has piled up 650 yards on the ground to power lowly Stanford to a 4-1 overall record and a Pac-10 leading 3-0 conference mark. He had 134 yards on the ground in Stanford’s victory Saturday over 4-0 UCLA, which had been ranked 9th in the country in defense against the run. The previous week Gerhart had rushed for 200 yards in beating Washington, conqueror of USC.

Gerhart has been the most valuable running back in college football so far this season because Stanford doesn”€™t have much else going for it. Every defense knows Gerhart will be coming at them, but they haven”€™t stopped him yet.

<object width=“390” height=“180”; style=“FLOAT: left; MARGIN: 10px 10px 10px 10px”><param name=“movie” value=“http://www.youtube.com/v/KjS3-uuIQ8s&hl=en&fs=1&border=1”>

<embed src=“http://www.youtube.com/v/KjS3-uuIQ8s&hl=en&fs=1&border=1” type=“application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=“always” allowfullscreen=“true” width=“390” height=“180”></embed></object><p>Still, while surprising as Gerhart’s success may seem to casual sports fans (in the NFL, for example, whites have started only a handful of games at tailback all decade), it can”€™t be shocking to the young man himself. Gerhart set Stanford’s rushing record last with 1,136 yards and 15 touchdowns. He had played big school prep football in Southern California’s Inland Empire, where he passed Dallas Cowboy Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith for 3rd place on the all-time national high school rushing rankings with 9,662 career yards.

Of course, there are many white running backs who shine in high school. At the high school level, the game remains much less racially stratified by position. State champions tend to be Catholic schools or exurban public schools with mostly white players, some with star black running backs, some even without. (Football is an expensive and complicated business, and inner city public schools tend to be longer on talent than on resources and organization.)

At the college level, however, white players in nontraditional positions are found mostly at either remote colleges, such as Wyoming, or at academically elite schools that take their admissions requirements fairly seriously, such as the service academies. Stanford and Northwestern both start 15 whites out of 22. Gerhart, for example, scored 1810 out of 2400 on the three-part SAT”€”not enough to get him into Stanford as a non-athlete but a lot higher than most college tailbacks.

Caste Football has the numbers of white starters for each Division 1-A team for 2009. Some of the blackest teams tend to be private colleges willing to walk close to the edge of NCAA recruiting trouble, such asUSC and Miami.

Why are white starting tailbacks so rare in college football (at least, outside of the Mountain Time Zone)? (Football position terminology is fluid, so I”€™ll use “€œtailback”€ to designate the featured ball carrier in contrast to “€œfullback,”€ whose primary duty is blocking.)

It’s not because the few whites always fail. LSU won the national championship in 2007, for example, with Jacob Hester as their primary running back.

This is not a question that gets asked much in print. Yet, thinking about it helps shine a light on much beyond the football field.

To help you understand where I”€™m coming from in thinking about race and running backs, allow me to indulge in a little nostalgia concerning the first college football game I ever saw. It was November 16, 1968, and I was nine. My dad had taken me to the museums in Exposition Park next to the University of Southern California. When we came out, a few minutes after one in the afternoon, the parking lot was full and the Coliseum next door roaring over the rematch between defending national champion USC and the only team to beat them the year before, Oregon State.

With the game already underway, a desperate scalper offered to sell us two tickets for whatever my father had in his pockets, which turned out to be $1.10.

As my dad and I trudged ever upward to our 55-cent seats in what turned out to be the 89th (and top) row in the end zone, I started to wonder if the scalper hadn”€™t gotten the best of the deal. Standing on my seat, I could peer over the back wall of the Coliseum and see our 1963 Pontiac down in the parking lot. Still, our Goodyear Blimpish view through the goal posts was ideal for watching the encounter of two All-American running backs.

The #13-ranked Oregon State Beavers from Corvallis, OR, were known as the Giant Killers because in the previous season, over the course of 21 days, they had beaten #2 Purdue, tied the new #2 UCLA, and beaten #1 USC. In 1968, their offensive star remained Bill “€œEarthquake”€ Enyart, a 236-pound running back who wound up rushing for 1,304 yards in ten games, including an epic 299 yards on 50 carries against Utah.

That was a lot of yards in a 1968 offense playing in Oregon’s rainy climate. The year before, after the Beavers had shut out the top-ranked Trojans 3-0 on a wet field in Corvallis, California governor Ronald Reagan donated the first dollar to a fund to buy Astroturf for the Beavers”€™ stadium.

In 1968 in LA, the undefeated and number 1-ranked USC couldn”€™t stop Enyart in the first half and fell behind. But on this cool, dry afternoon, I watched Simpson, who was already the most famous college football player since Red Grange, run wild in the second half, ending up with a career high 238 yards (on his way to 1,709 for the regular season) as the Trojans came back to win 17-13.

(Ironically, the Buffalo Bills drafted Simpson with their first pick and Enyart with their second. The two looked forward to forming a classic tailback-fullback combo. But Bills coach Johnny Rauch curiously decided that his best offensive weapon was future Vice Presidential candidate Jack Kemp’s 34-year-old arm, so Enyart was primarily used as receiver out of the backfield and Simpson as a wide receiver, kick returner, and the league’s most glamorous decoy.)

The lesson I took away from that 1968 game was that the very best running backs were likely to be black. Indeed, USC had a long line of black Heisman winners and runners-up: Mike Garrett, Simpson, Anthony Davis, Ricky Bell, Charles White, Marcus Allen, and Reggie Bush.

On the other hand, it seemed to me as a child, there were also plenty of good white running backs, and lots of Oregon States for them to play at.

For another decade or two, that seemed to be true, but it’s gotten less true over the years. Why?

There’s little discussion in the sports pages. For years, sportswriters had been up in arms over the purported under-representation of blacks at the other glamour position, quarterback. Rush Limbaugh ignited a huge brouhaha in 2003 by dissenting, saying that the media was over-inflating the reputations of some black quarterbacks to push their political agenda.

In retrospect, it appears Limbaugh was, on the whole, right. 2003 was the peak year of the NFL’s black quarterback bubble, with blacks passing for 25.7 percent of all yardage that season. Since then, however, black NFL quarterbacks have stabilized down around their share of the national population. Among QB regulars, blacks accounted for 14.7 percent of NFL passing yards in 2008 and only 13.4 percent so far in 2009.

So far this season, only five blacks rank among the NFL’s 33 busiest quarterbacks. Jason Campbell of Washington and David Garrard of Jacksonville are throwing the ball fairly well, and Seattle’s Seneca Wallace is doing about as well as can be expected for 5″€™-11″€ quarterback in the NFL. Byron Leftwich isn”€™t getting much done for Tampa Bay, and JaMarcus Russell, now in his third season after being the #1 pick in the 2007 draft, is completing less than 40 percent of his passes. (Of course, even Peyton Manning might not look so hot if he had to play in Al Davis’s Oakland.) Among other famous black quarterbacks, Donovan McNabb is injured, Michael Vick is restarting his career after his imprisonment for dogfighting, and 2006 #1 pick Vince Young is on the bench.

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In contrast to their crusade for more black quarterbacks, sportswriters, who may be the single most politically correct category of all journalists (because the reality of human biodiversity is so blatantly obvious in sports), have devoted negligible attention to wondering if white running backs suffer from stereotyping and “€œchanneling”€ into other positions. (For example, USC inquired about local boy Gerhart, but only wanted him to play fullback to block for their black tailbacks. USC started last season with ten running backs, all high school stars and all black.)

The true test of a respectable sportswriter these days is his adamantine ability to not mention the elephant in the living room”€”racial differences in physiques”€”and to persecute anyone who does let slip an acknowledgment of reality. Earlier in this decade, for instance, sportswriters hounded out of their jobs Notre Dame radio announcer Paul Hornung and Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry after they mentioned in public that blacks tend to be faster.

So, why are there a lot of white starting tailbacks in high school, very few in big time college football, and none in the NFL?

There are three general explanations:

Stereotyping and Discrimination Against Blacks (A.K.A., Did You Know that Jewish Players Used to Dominate Basketball?) This is the dominant public explanation put forward by the sporting press. The party line is that blacks are forced by poverty to become multimillionaire stars, while wealthy whites relax in the lap of luxury by, uh, playing center or breaking up the wedge on kickoffs or … well, never mind. The facts aren”€™t important.

As Tom Wolfe implied in I Am Charlotte Simmons, this theory is motivated less by any serious urge to explain reality and more by Jewish pundits”€™ concerns over whether honest analysis of racial differences is good for the Jews.

In Wolfe’s 2004 novel, the frat boys watch a talk show on ESPN:

… four poorly postured middle-aged white sportswriters sat slouched in little, low-backed, smack-red fiberglass swivel chairs panel-discussing the ‘sensitive’ matter of the way black players dominated basketball. “€œLook,”€ the well-known columnist Maury Fieldtree was saying, his chin resting on a pasha’s cushion of jowls, “€œjust think about it for a second. Race, ethnicity, all that”€”that’s just a symptom of something else. There’s been whole cycles of different minorities using sports as a way out of the ghetto. …

Maury Fieldtree goes on to talk about the Irish and boxing, Italians and boxing, Germans and football, and then, inevitably:

In the 1930s and 1940s, you know who dominated professional basketball long before the African Americans? Jewish players. Yeah! Jewish players from the Jewish ghettos of New York!”€

The Rube Goldberg ish logic underlying the conventional wisdom is, roughly, that

A) If it became socially acceptable to admit in public that blacks might have on average genetic advantages in jumping and sprinting; then

B) It might become acceptable to admit that maybe blacks have lower average IQs for genetic reasons; which would then

C) Let the gentiles find out that Jews might higher average IQs for genetic reasons; thus,

D) The goyim will come for us with their torches and pitchforks; and therefore,

E) We must just bury the whole topic in mindless kitsch to prevent A from ever happening.

In contrast, the two serious theories are:

Genetics: As O.J. Simpson explained to Time in 1977: “€œWe are built a little differently, built for speed”€”skinny calves, long legs, high asses are all characteristics of blacks.”€

Stereotyping and Discrimination Against Whites: The website CasteFootball.us has long been single-mindedly documenting outstanding young white athletes who have been channeled by coaches from traditionally black positions such as tailback, cornerback or wide receiver to whiter, less glamorous positions such as linebacker, strong safety, or tight end.

Amusingly, this prejudice gets coded into video games. A black lady sportswriter, Jemele Hill, pointed out:

Recently, according to Gerhart, one of his friends was playing an NCAA video game and created a player with Gerhart’s speed and dimensions (6-foot-2, 230 pounds, 4.43 in the 40-yard dash). When his friend made the player white, the game automatically described the video version of Gerhart as “power back.” When his friend changed the skin color to black, he became an “all-purpose back.”€

Clearly, genetics explain much of the gap in football, but Caste Football’s complaints about preconceptions can”€™t be ruled out. As they”€™ve pointed out, even in the NFL, football was a well-integrated game into the 1980s (when, say, John Riggins was a superstar running back for the Washington Redskins), but something has changed since then.

I”€™ve come to agree with Caste Football that attitudes matter, but I also suspect that technical changes over the decades have made the playing field more racially uneven.

It’s not true that natural talent always wins out in sports. Arbitrary forces have some impact as well. For example, in the National Hockey League, 57 percent of players”€™ birthdates fall in the first six months of the year. This is because the cutoff birthdate for junior leagues is usually January 1, so the kids born earlier in the year tend to be bigger and better and thus get selected for traveling squads with better coaching. The kids born later in the year are more likely to fall by the wayside. (By the way, blacks appear to reach puberty earlier than whites on average, which could have a somewhat similar effect.)

Looking back, the emergence of USC as Tailback U. from the mid-1960s into the early 1980s had to do both with California having a large, healthy black population unhindered by Jim Crow, and with the fact that it seldom rains in LA before December.

Dry weather made more feasible both the passing game, spreading the field for the tailbacks, and the quick cutting running game, as opposed to the 3-yards-and-a-shower-of-mud heavy running offense that was the pride of the Midwestern Big 10 conference.

The Big 10 had become the dominant conference after WWII because it was both integrated and had access to lots of in-state blacks in Great Lakes manufacturing cities, while Southern teams stayed segregated into the late 1960s. But, Big 10 coaches, such as Woody Hayes of Ohio State, didn”€™t adapt their tactics to fully exploit their black players”€™ explosiveness because they figured the crucial games late in the season would be played on slippery fields when straight ahead pile-driving and upper body strength would matter most.

Unluckily for the reputation of the Big 10, it didn”€™t rain in Pasadena, California on New Year’s Day for 26 straight years, from 1956 through 1981, so Rose Bowl games were played under ideal conditions for USC and the other West Coast schools. In the 1970s, the Big Ten lost nine out of ten Rose Bowls to more showy Pac-10 teams.

Since the days of Woody Hayes, the quality of turf in football stadiums, whether artificial, natural, or hybrid, has improved considerably. Moreover, teams that play in difficult climates now often play indoors. Because footing is more consistent, lower body quickness has grown more important relative to upper body strength, giving blacks an advantage.

Another major change just beginning in the 1960s was the nationalization of recruiting. Oregon State coach Dee “€œThe Great Pumpkin”€ Andros found Bill Enyart down the highway in Medford, Oregon. Today, Enyart’s cleats are filled by an import from Texas named Jacquizz Rodgers (who, I would guess from his name, is black). Jacquizz rushed for 186 yards on 37 carries in Oregon State’s 2008 upset win that cost USC last year’s national title.

The vastly increased sophistication of recruiting means that college coaches all across the country can acquire standardized inputs. Coaches no longer have to make do with whatever the local demographics produces. Just because Oregon State is located in a small town in a state that is only 2.4 percent black, doesn”€™t mean the coach can”€™t have a black tailback, just like the coaches at USC or Georgia.

If you are a coach, why take a risk on a non-stereotypical tailback? They used to say in the corporate world that no IT manager was ever fired for buying IBM. Today, nobody gets fired for putting a black player at tailback.


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