Stereotyping, prejudice are in our blood
Even with effort, it’s hard to correct ourselves
Let’s play a little game. Name all the Heisman Trophy-winning running backs who come to mind if you hear the following two words:
If you read Christian McCaffrey’s and his father Ed’s remarks in a Sports Illustrated piece, you probably know where I am going. The freakishly explosive and athletic Christian McCaffrey said, “When you read about white athletes these days and white skill possession receivers specifically, one word you’ll always find is tough.” McCaffery continued, “You’ll rarely see explosive, athletic, stuff like that …”
Ed McCaffrey, the tough former Denver Broncos receiver, said, “There are immediate stereotypes about a white running back who grew up in the suburbs of Colorado.” Remember McCaffrey’s younger years, his father said, “When we’ve gone to camps or all-star games, he walks on the field and people look at him like he’s nothing.”
So how did you do with our game of Heisman Trophy word association? Could you name any white running backs who fit the description? Can you even name any white running backs who have won the award? (Did you think of McCaffrey?)
You would have to go back to the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s to even find a few white running backs who won. Don’t worry, you’re not a racist. That lack of representation is part of the reason we have a hard time describing McCaffrey accurately. We don’t have the imagination required to see McCaffrey as anything more than a white running back who must fit into today’s preconceived notions.
Week 4 of the 2005 NFL season, I started my first game at cornerback for the Denver Broncos. We were playing the Jacksonville Jaguars, which had drafted Matt Jones with its first-round pick. Jones was the definition of a raw, gifted athlete. He stood 6 feet 5 inches and ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine. A record-breaking basketball player and star quarterback at Arkansas, Jones was not viewed as a quarterback by NFL teams. He was switched to receiver, a transition familiar to many black quarterbacks. However, Jones was white, with long blond hair.
During that week’s preparation, coaches and teammates warned me about Jones’ speed. Displaying a cornerback’s arrogance, my reply was often, “no way I let a white boy beat me.” Wrong as it may be, his complexion gave me more confidence. The subtext of my dismissive response was that I didn’t care what his 40-time was, he is white and white people can’t outrun me.
Byron Leftwich was the quarterback of that Jaguars team. We installed some quarterback spy coverages in our third-down defensive package that week. But why?
Leftwich didn’t use his legs. He threw for more than 300 yards in a college game on a tibia so badly broken that his lineman carried him to the huddle between plays. He finished the 2005 season with 67 rushing yards, 20 fewer than the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady.
So, why spy when there is no reason to do so?
He was a black quarterback. To be fair, I don’t remember if we ever ran any spy defenses during the game, but we were ready in case his melanin told him to run. I didn’t tell these anecdotes to say anyone is racist, just that we are all susceptible to stereotyping and generalizations.
I was young and narrow-minded. I no longer prejudge people.
OK, that’s just not true. If I go to a gym to play pickup basketball today, when the white guy gets the ball, I will run him off of the 3-point line and make him dribble drive and finish at the basket. I make assumptions about people all the time in athletic, professional, and social settings, based on superficial things.
I believe we all do. It’s instinctive. It is out of our control. And, honestly I don’t think we can undo hundreds of years of conditioning. What we can do is be conscious of our prejudiced thoughts and stop them before they become actions.
Of course I learned my lesson, Jones had a great game against me and we lost. Right?
We won. I had an interception, recovered a fumble, and did the Tootsie Roll dance on the sideline.
An earlier version of this story had Christian McCaffrey’s name misspelled.