The NFL Has a Race-Related Suspension Problem

Data show that NFL league officials disproportionately suspend Black players.

Posted Jul 14, 2020

An all-white sample of 96 participants was asked to observe one of four different versions of a coordinated argument between two people. 

In this scripted disagreement, one person shoves the other as the conversation boils over. In one version the person doing the shoving is white, in another version, the person is Black. Likewise, the victim—the “shove-ee”—is sometimes white, and sometimes Black. In reality, the force of the shove is exactly the same in all four versions, but the interpretations from the participants weren’t.

After viewing the confrontation, participants are asked a simple question: how violent was that shove?

Controlled processing

People make judgments about social information, like an ambiguous shove between two men, in two interrelated ways: quickly and automatically or slowly and controlled. Sometimes, people’s quick interpretations of a situation are correct; however, they can also be fraught with errors.

To combat these errors, the brain evolved a second way to interpret social information and make decisions, called the controlled processing system. This kind of thinking is slower, enabling people to override automatic processing and make more considered decisions. 

In an ideal world, these systems would work in tandem, with automatic processing guiding moment-to-moment interpretations and controlled processing allowing measured conclusions. 

So how violent was the shove?

When the white person did the shoving, participants tended to rate the behavior as “playing around”—but when the Black man initiated the shove, participants were more likely to rate it as “aggressive” [1].

In the context of the two processing systems, the study clearly shows that people’s preconceived stereotypes can color their automatic assessments of a situation. Perhaps even worse, these automatic assessments then influence decisions people make in the slower, controlled phase of processing. 

Put simply, even with time to make relatively thought-out, controlled decisions, people can interpret the same action in different ways as a result of their racial stereotypes. 

Black players are suspended more for their behavior

Behavioral suspensions can be as a result of off-field conduct (like getting a DUI), within-team conduct (like missing team practices), or on-field behavior (like fighting during a game) [2].

Data taken from The Institutive of Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) 2019 report show that the percentage of black players in the NFL has remained largely the same since 1992. The average percentage of Black players in the NFL across a sporadic 29 year span between 1991 - 2019 was 66.5%, ranging between 58.9% and 69.7% year to year [3]. White players averaged 30.8% during the same span, and ranged between 27.4% and 36% [4].

If all things were equal, the percentage of behavioral suspensions between 1992 and 2019 should be roughly 67% Black players and 31% white players. 

However, that wasn’t the case: Black players constituted 88.8% (+22.3%) of all behavioral suspensions while white players only made up about 8% (-22.8%).

A bias toward suspending Black players?

The judgment to suspend players based on their behavior occurs at multiple levels—it’s not just referees making a judgment call during the heat of battle. Team administrations and league officials are all weighing in on whether players should be suspended because they received a DUI, were abusive to loved ones, or missed multiple practices. 

Teams and league officials have plenty of time to weigh their decisions, allowing them to get past the brain’s knee-jerk and error-prone automatic processing. Ideally, the freedom to make a slower, considered decision would enable the controlled processing system to kick in and override the biases inherent in quick decisions. 

But that doesn’t seem to be happening; NFL league officials are still making biased decisions. 


Again, the most likely answer is not, “NFL league officials just inherently racist.” But, at least part of the answer likely is, “NFL officials, like all humans, are inherently lazy”—they are what two famous social psychologists called cognitive misers [5].  

People tend to let their automatic processes, which are built on unconsciously categorizing and stereotyping, rule the day. It takes work to engage controlled processing, and even more work to engage it sufficiently deeply to override people’s initial automatic impressions. 

But, the good news is that if people can become aware of their automatic biases, controlled processing can help overcome them. Indeed, the best way to override bias is to become aware of it [6]. 

We as a country have a race problem, one that is currently bubbling over with frustration and one that is not easily solved. Part of this problem is our nature as humans to act tribally—to like what is familiar to us and to dislike, fear, or hate what is unfamiliar to us [7]. 

But with rational minds in a data-driven world, we need to override these reflexive tendencies. Time permitting or not, we need to become more aware of the biases that cloud our judgment because it’s not only million-dollar athletes who have to face the consequences of institutionalized racism


[1] Duncan, B.L. (1976). Differential social perception and attribution of intergroup violence: Testing the lower limits of stereotyping of Blacks, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 590-598.

[2] Performance enhancing suspensions were not included in this study.

[3] The year 1990 had multiple percentages reported; the years 2000, 2001, 2002, 2017, and 2018 had no data reported. In 2019, “two or more races” along with other demographic categories were added. This may have contributed to the sharp decline in the percentage of players who identified as “African American.”

[4] Asian/Pacific Islander, Latino, and Other constitute the remaining demographics.

[5] Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. (1991). Social cognition (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

[6] Devine, P. G. (1989). Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 5–18.

[7] Tajfel, H., & Turner J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In S. Worchel, W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Nelson-Hall, Chicago, 7–24.