In August, I drove 31 hours across the country to my new home in Charlotte, NC. Two weeks later, the 2015-2016 NFL regular season began and I learned how much Charlotte loves its Panthers! The Panthers responded to this love by winning 15 of their 16 regular season games and advancing to the Super Bowl (where they broke Charlotte’s heart and lost to the Broncos).
Obviously many players contributed to the team effort that got them to the Super Bowl. But the player who clearly led this team was Cam Newton. Cam Newton had a fantastic season and was voted NFL MVP. Occasionally, when Cam Newton was being discussed on television or in articles, something would be mentioned about his race and some of the African-American quarterbacks that came before him (of which there are few). This discussion led me to wonder about the racial breakdown of NFL quarterbacks.
According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport’s 2015 National Football League Racial and Gender Report Card, 28.6% of players in 2014 in the NFL were white while 68.7% of players were African-American. From this data, one might think that the NFL doesn’t have any bias towards African Americans and race is not an issue when discussion Cam Newton. But if we look at race by position, we see that in 2014, 80.2% of all quarterbacks were white with only 19% of quarterbacks being African-American. And using information gathered from NFL.com, I found that of the 41 quarterbacks who attempted at least 100 passes in the 2015 season, only 6 are African-American. In sum, although nearly 70% of all players in the NFL are African-American, 85% of quarterbacks who regularly see the field are white.
Such a story is quite consistent with the history of the NFL. In their book, Stumbling on Wins, David Berri and Martin Schmidt discuss the history of African-American quarterbacks in the NFL. James Harris was the first African-American starting quarterback to receive significant (again, attempting at least 100 passes in a season) playing time. This was in the 1970s. From 1971 through the 2015 season, there have only been 45 African-American quarterbacks who have attempted at least 100 passes in a season. To put that in perspective, just last year 35 white quarterbacks attempted 100 passes.
The early African-American quarterbacks faced many challenges but on average out produced their white counterparts in terms of Wins per 100 Plays (a measure of performance detailed in Stumbling on Wins). The stats also show that African-American quarterbacks generally play the game in a different manner than white quarterbacks. In particular, on average African-Americans rush more than white quarterbacks. Specifically this past season, African-American quarterbacks ran the ball on average 15.6% of the time (calculated based on number of passing and rushing attempts) while white quarterbacks on average ran the ball 6.5% of the time.
So does race matter when we talk about Cam Newton? The empirical research clearly suggests that the NFL -- when it comes to quarterbacks -- is not color-blind. We are not to a point where a player like Cam Newton can solely be evaluated in terms of his abilities. Instead, Newton’s race is impacting how some people view him as a player. Of course, the great thing is that once we understand this research, we can make sure racial bias doesn’t skew our own view.