Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Does race still factor into college player scouting reports?

White guys can't jump. Nor can they run or lift weights or do the shuttle cone drill - at least not as well as their black counterparts.

That is agent Jack Bechta's thesis in this post, where he argues that white players tend to have their athletic ability downplayed, and their smarts and work ethic, overplayed by pro scouts whose job it is to evaluate college prospects heading into the annual NFL draft.

It's a fair point. And I can think of two Vikings players who fit the mold perfectly: rookie safety Harrison Smith and defensive end Brian Robison.

In Smith's case, the "white bias" didn't affect his draft status. He was drafted in the first round, 29th overall, and the Vikings traded back into the first round to ensure they got him. But in a review of the Vikings draft, former National Football Post college scouting guy, Wes Bunting, said Smith had some "tightness" in his hips and didn't get "in and out of his breaks" in pass coverage very well. And in TBird's prophetic rundown of Smith as a player the Vikings might pick with their second draft chip (he also pegged Josh Robinson as a likely Viking draft target), there is mention of scouts complaining that Smith played "too stiff", which is another way of saying he'd suck in pass coverage. Smith's strengths were supposed to be his smarts, his toughness and his tackling.

Well, Smith's proven to be a quick study, and his dustups with Percy Harvin in training camp and his post-play pushing matches with opponents this year show he's a tough customer. But remember his pass breakup on the deep throw to Calvin Johnson in the win against Detroit? And how about his weaving through traffic and outrunning the Cardinals' offensive players for that critical pick six on Sunday? Those weren't plays a stiff safety should make. But Smith made them, and he's been making them all year. So even for a first round pick, scouts underestimated the Notre Dame product's athletic skills. Could it be because he's a white boy?

Robison is an even better case that there is a lot of truth in what Bechta's writes. Taken in the fourth round of the 2007 NFL draft (102nd pick overall), Robison was, and is, described as a try-hard, high motor player who makes plays on pure hustle. But hustle will only get you so far. You need talent to make plays in the NFL. When I watch Robison play, I see a guy that not only works extremely hard, but has great speed to beat his blocker on the edge, and the quickness and strength to stop the run when required. In short, he's one hell of an athlete.

In his sixth year, and only in his second year as a starter, Robison (25.5 career sacks) has outplayed the vast majority of the defensive ends  (many of whom happen to be black) that were drafted ahead of him. That list includes Jamaal Anderson (8th pick overall, 7.5 career sacks), Adam Carriker (13th pick overall, nine career sacks), Jarvis Moss (17th pick overall, six career sacks), Tim Crowder (56th pick overall, 10.5 career sacks), Quentin Moses (65th pick overall, 3.5 career sacks) and Ray McDonald (97th pick overall, 11 career sacks).

Only Anthony Spencer (26th overall, 24.5 career sacks), LaMarr Woodley (46th overall, 50 career sacks), and Charles Johnson (83rd overall, 34 career sacks) could be viewed as better players than Robison at this stage of their respective careers (and I know Woodley and Spencer have played linebacker in the pros, but they were listed as DEs coming out of college). Sacks aren't a complete picture of a defensive end's worth. But even if you consider other factors – tackles, quarterback hurries, tipped passes, tackles for a loss, it's clear Robison deserved to be drafted higher than he was.

This post isn't picking a racial fight or trying to make any grand social commentary. I just find it interesting how the perception of what an athlete should be based on his skin color continues to influence draft decisions. Let's hope Vikings general manager Rick Spielman and his scouting staff aren't running with the NFL herd in this case. 

2 comments:

  1. An interesting, thought provoking read. Thanks for this!

    I think that racism may be a self-fulfilling prophecy in some ways. Certain positions in the NFL have traditionally been dominated by skin color or another. WRs, RBs and DBs tend to feature more of one skin color, QBs, kickers and centers feature more of the other. Is it because those respective colors are inherently better at the skills those respective positions require? Or has racism results in races not only being treated different, but also the members of those races themselves approaching life differently?

    I'll bet there are a lot of Toby Gerhart type players in college that switch positions in order to fit into a position seen as more "white" to see if they have more success, because, after all, there aren't a whole lot of white RBs in the NFL. There must be a reason for that, right? Maybe it's because white RBs switch to guard or fullback or whatever before they enter the draft...?

    Of course, that's circular by nature, so the question is: how did it start? White guys avoiding the RB position or white guys actually being less successful at the position?

    In the end, the right people ought to be hired for the job based on how well they can do that job. I would hope coaches and GMs are smart enough to pick a talented player at good value in the draft no matter their color.

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    1. Peter:

      You're welcome. There's no definitive answer to the questions you posed. You wonder how many kids, both black and white, get switched to more prototypical positions early - like youth or high school football - because of racial stereotypes or who don't play football at all because they don't think they can cut it.

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