The Curious Incident of the Black NFL Kicker

Why have there been almost no black NFL kickers?

Posted Jan 13, 2016

In one of Sherlock Holmes’ most famous pieces of detective work, his attention to detail oriented him toward something that was missing:

Inspector Gregory: "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

Sherlock Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."

Holmes: "That was the curious incident."

Captured in the exchange above, Holmes classically pointed out that if Inspector Gregory’s theory of the crime were accurate, then clearly the dog should have been barking. Yet the dog never made a peep.

Wikipedia/Labeled for reuse
Source: Wikipedia/Labeled for reuse

I was reminded of this quote following a discussion my 16 year-old daughter and I had over the weekend about the relation between race/ethnicity and positions folks played football field, especially the kicker. My daughter and I were watching an NFL game and the following exchange took place:

Sydney: I don’t want to seem racist, but it seems like the offensive linemen are more likely to be white, but the guys on defense are much more likely to be black. Is that true?

Me:  It is absolutely a real phenomenon. And it is not racist to be observant and notice the pattern per se. I don’t know the exact figures, but it is definitely the case that offensive linemen are relatively more likely to be white, but positions like cornerback and wide receiver and running back are much more likely to be occupied by folks who are black. (See here for data from the 2008 NFL league break down of race by position).

Sydney: Is that because black people are faster?

Me: Now, from a PC perspective, how you framed that question does border on what some critics might consider to be racist. In fact, many academics question the legitimacy of whole idea of race as a "real" category. But let's put that aside and let’s think about it for a while. I think there is evidence to suggest that, at the very elite levels, individuals of African descent may have more speed and quickness. Look for example, at Olympic sprinters (see here). And when you look at the distribution of black relative to white players in various positions on the football field this assertion gathers substantial support. For example, I think the position of cornerback probably requires the most overall quickness and agility and offensive linemen the least--their skill is more in brute strength. There was a movie, White Men Can’t Jump, that addressed this from a Hollywood perspective and how it plays out culturally on the basketball court. But the situation is clearly complicated because there are lots of factors at work here.

Sydney: What do you mean?

Me: Well, look at quarterbacks. What do you notice there?

Sydney: The quarterbacks seem to be mostly white.  

Me: Why do you think that is?

Sydney: I don’t know. Is that because of racism?

Me: Racism definitely plays a huge part there. When I was a kid in the early 1980s, black quarterbacks were just appearing and the reason was very simple. The quarterback is the position of power on the field, and for a long time in the 1960s and 70s, black kids were often not allowed to play quarterback because of racism. That was changing in the 80s and has changed quite dramatically over the past few decades, and now we have guys like Cam Newton and Russell Wilson, who are some of the best QBs in the league. But still, most QBs are white and I think racism, at least historically, is a good reason. So I think both racism and speed/quickness are both good hypotheses that offer potential in explaining the pattern of differences. But actually things get even more complicated when we consider the most curious position of all when it comes to race in the NFL, that of the kicker.

Sydney (thinking for a bit): OMG…there are NO black kickers!

Me: That is right. And I think there is currently only one black punter. (I was right, M. King)

We proceeded to search the internet for the statistics and the magnitude of the “missing black kicker” was even more dramatic than I would have guessed. Jason Matthews analyzed this question, which he claimed “may be the most perplexing sports question of all time”. According to his analysis, in the history of NFL there have only been five black placekickers. Matthews pointed out that, since the league began, there have been 1,418 roster slots for kickers. Only 14 (less than 1%) of those roster slots have been held by individuals who were black. Consider that over that time period approximately 50% of the NFL players have been black (currently the number is almost 70%). The numbers here are truly dramatic, almost unbelievable. Also, although there are a few more punters, they are almost as rare.

The numbers make it undeniable--there must be a very powerful force at work here. The question is, “What is it?”

Matthews himself goes through possible explanations:

1. Black athletes don’t want to play kicker.

2. Kickers don’t get any respect.

3. Kickers don’t make good money.

4. Most kickers play soccer first, and black folks are less likely to play soccer.

5. Kickers are not important.

Matthews claims none of these hypotheses make any sense. He ends with the speculation that there is a “deep, hidden and perhaps subconscious agenda to keep kickers white by players and coaches”. He admits this seems farfetched, but claims it is not the “worst theory”. Indeed, the title of the blog suggest that this might be the NFL's final prejudice, and he is not the only one who has argued this.

From where I stand, I see no evidence nor can think of any conceivable reason for a subconscious agenda of folks in power in the NFL (owners, coaches, legends of the game) to “keep kickers white”. As someone who emphasizes how human investment and justification shape culture which in turn shape action, my unified framework would predict that there is a system of justification within young black athletic culture that is prejudiced against being a kicker and thus greatly reduces investment in that position. The logic here is as follows: Athletic accomplishment in basketball and football have long been pillars of status and achievement in black culture (not only is this a stereotype and known generally, it had a clear presence in many of the inner city families I worked with in Philadelphia).

The problem was that kickers, even if they were acknowledged to be important to the team and to scoring, were not seen as “real” athletes. It would follow, in terms of justification and investment, from this that being a kicker would be then seen as a “cheap” way to become a professional athlete. Moreover, once the culture gets entrenched, then it becomes self-reinforcing, such that folks associate race with one kind of position or another (i.e., the absence of role models and stereotypes function to maintain the status quo).

Interestingly, I found some evidence for this idea in NY Times article from a couple of years back. In investigating the racial/ethnic disparities in the NFL, Rhoden reports:

Many African-American players eschew punting and kicking because it is not athletic enough. Claude Mathis, the coach at DeSoto (Tex.) High School, said he had to beg his best player to kick and punt. “Kids make fun of you when you’re a punter,” he said. “When you’re an athlete. you don’t want to be labeled as punter or kicker; kids will make fun of you.”

When we see disparate outcomes in groups, many folks immediately that prejudice must be the cause. However, I think the case of the missing black kickers provides a clear example that disparate outcomes can arise for something other than discrimination, because the racial discrimination hypothesis here makes no sense. I would love to hear thoughts from others about why they think there are so few black kickers in the NFL.