Race in the NFL Draft

In case you were wondering, race is still important in the U.S., including in American sports. Thanks to Deadspin, we can even quantify this to some extent.

The website 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. The authors created a database of several hundred thousand words, covering nearly 400 athletes (specifically, 288 black players, and 99 white players), using reports from the NFL.com, ESPN, and CBS. I’m assuming the data covers only the class of 2014.

The tool is allows users to type in their own words, providing a treasure-hunt feel. Turns out 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”.

After a few rounds of guess and check, I became curious as to what a more systematic analysis might reveal. To Deadspin’s immense credit, they made the basic data available, so I downloaded and played around with it a bit to find out just what the “blackest” and “whitest’ words were.

Specifically, I took the top 1000 words most commonly used to describe black players, and the 500 words most commonly used to describe white players. (The arbitrarily different arbitrary endpoints, to partially account for the larger number of black players in the sample. If I were doing this formally, I’d probably have used a weighted frequency, but this is, after all, just a blog post.)

From the resulting lists, I’ve drawn out the 50 words most likely associated with black and white athletes, respectively. In the charts that follow, I provide the frequency per 10,000 words for both black and white prospects, and also include odds ratio (which can be interpreted as how many times more likely the word is to be used in association with a black/white athlete). The results are sorted by the latter, such that the most heavily black- and white-tilted are listed first. Astute readers will note slight discrepancies between my totals and Deadspin’s; these seem to be due to correspondingly slight differences in the aggregation of word results. Even so, the results are almost identical.

The words are all vaguely football-ish, but upon reflection distinctive patterns emerge. Join me below for further thoughts.

Table 1: The most black-associated words

word B/W ratio white uses / 10,000 words black uses / 10,000 words word B/W ratio white uses / 10,000 words black uses / 10,000 words
all-purpose inf. 0.0 1.6 pedal 4.8 0.4 2.1
cutback inf. 0.0 1.4 disruptive 4.7 0.3 1.4
touches inf. 0.0 1.4 driving 4.7 0.3 1.4
safety 15.1 0.4 6.6 tracks 4.7 0.7 3.4
open-field 14.1 0.1 2.1 possession 4.6 0.3 1.3
pass-rush 12.5 0.1 1.8 talented 4.6 0.3 1.3
loose 11.0 0.1 1.6 runs 4.6 1.8 8.0
jones 10.7 0.1 1.6 instead 4.6 0.4 2.0
cornerback 10.7 0.4 4.7 wr 4.6 0.4 2.0
upright 10.4 0.1 1.5 bounce 4.4 0.3 1.3
return 9.7 0.6 5.7 accelerates 4.4 0.4 1.9
returner 9.5 0.3 2.8 chase 4.4 0.4 1.9
auburn 9.5 0.1 1.4 closes 4.2 0.4 1.8
cuts 6.8 0.6 4.0 tightness 4.1 0.6 2.4
gaps 6.7 0.3 2.0 drop 4.0 1.0 4.1
leaping 6.3 0.6 3.7 interception 3.9 0.6 2.3
vj 6.3 0.3 1.8 track 3.9 1.0 4.0
acceleration 6.1 0.7 4.5 radius 3.8 0.6 2.2
gap 6.0 0.3 1.7 flexible 3.7 0.6 2.2
jam 5.8 0.3 1.7 terms 3.7 0.6 2.2
mother 5.7 0.3 1.7 wrap 3.7 0.7 2.7
currently 5.2 0.3 1.5 disengage 3.7 0.6 2.1
violent 5.1 0.4 2.2 coordination 3.7 0.7 2.7
support 5.0 0.7 3.7 physicality 3.6 0.9 3.2
stop 4.9 0.3 1.4 directions 3.6 0.6 2.1

Table 2: The most white-associated words

word W/B ratio white uses / 10,000 words black uses / 10,000 words word W/B ratio white uses / 10,000 words black uses / 10,000 words
delivery 13.6 3.6 0.3 arm 2.8 21.7 7.7
accuracy 12.3 9.9 0.8 all-conference 2.7 3.6 1.3
velocity 9.8 3.9 0.4 offense 2.7 9.2 3.4
accurate 7.8 3.5 0.4 smart 2.6 6.1 2.3
mobility 7.0 4.1 0.6 experienced 2.6 3.6 1.4
short-to-inter-mediate 6.3 3.4 0.5 backup 2.6 3.2 1.2
throwing 6.1 5.7 0.9 drive 2.5 7.1 2.9
placement 5.0 8.3 1.7 throws 2.4 17.6 7.3
leg 4.5 6.4 1.4 50 2.4 3.6 1.5
pocket 4.3 13.7 3.2 moving 2.3 4.4 1.9
center 4.0 8.6 2.1 ends 2.3 5.0 2.2
passer 4.0 4.1 1.0 base 2.3 7.6 3.3
pressure 4.0 8.3 2.1 ten 2.3 5.8 2.6
targets 3.9 4.2 1.1 four-year 2.2 3.2 1.4
intangibles 3.9 3.6 0.9 sound 2.2 3.5 1.6
understands 3.7 3.9 1.1 rushers 2.2 6.0 2.7
touch 3.5 3.8 1.1 blocking 2.2 4.7 2.1
guard 3.5 12.3 3.5 keeping 2.2 3.2 1.5
onto 3.4 3.4 1.0 leader 2.2 7.4 3.4
release 3.3 5.7 1.7 punch 2.1 5.5 2.6
throw 3.1 5.4 1.7 keeps 2.1 6.7 3.2
under 3.1 9.2 3.0 tackle 2.1 19.1 9.3
intelligence 3.0 3.5 1.2 push 2.1 3.9 1.9
brother 3.0 5.0 1.7 left 2.0 15.9 7.8
passing 3.0 9.8 3.3 timing 2.0 4.1 2.0

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.

Some differences seem innocuous, even idiosyncratic. Black reports mention “Auburn”. Those for whites mention the number “50” for some reason. 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:

Table 3: black word groups
Physicality upright, leaping, acceleration, pedal, driving, talented, runs, bounce, accelerates, chase, closes, tightness, track, radius, flexible, coordination, physicality
Violence jam, violent, disruptive
Positional all-purpose, cutback, touches, safety, open-field, pass-rush, cornerback, return, returner, cuts, gaps, gap, wr
Development loose, currently, support, stop, drop, interception, terms, directions
Other jones, auburn, vj, instead, wrap, disengage

 

 Table 4: white word groups
Quarterback delivery, accuracy, velocity, accurate, mobility, short-to-intermediate, throwing, placement, pocket, passer, release, throw, passing, arm, throws
Other positional leg, center, pressure, targets, touch, guard, under, offense, rushers, blocking, keeps, tackle
Intelligence intangibles, understands, intelligence, all-conference, smart,
experienced, sound, leader
Other onto, brother, backup, drive, 50, ends, base, ten, four-year, keeping, punch, left, timing

I was quite surprised just how pervasive the old tropes of the smart white leader athletes, and the talent and physical black athletes remain. The word “accuracy” is more than twelve 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.

One final note: this post is something of a data dump. With more time and better tools, one could undoubtedly create some great visualizations of the results here. If others have—in the words of the great Winston Zeddemore—both the tools and the talent to do more, by all means I’d be happy to share my slightly more processed data.

Photo credit: Ron Almog, via wikimedia commons

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