Run-N-Shoot: Race in (Fantasy) Sports

The conversation started innocently enough.  Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski wondered why Twitter had so much love for Stefon Diggs yet such little interest in fellow Vikings wideout Adam Thielen.

“Race,” I wondered openly.

Nobody responded.  Race impacting sports?  Or our decision-making in fantasy?  That’s a topic too PC for most to broach.

Yet my comment about race did get one “like,” from Dodgers starting pitcher Brandon McCarthy.  Emboldened to initiate a chat with Brandon, I decided to ask him about race in the sports world.  The following exchange ensued:

@MarkStopa:  I get if you ignore this Q, @BMcCarthy32, but do you think race plays role in perceived talent of pro athletes?  Does it impact jobs?  Salaries?

@BMcCarthy32:  Yes.  Was going to comment on this yesterday.  Not sure about jobs/salaries but I’m sure it does to a degree.  We’re still visual creatures.

@MarkStopa:  With long-standing biases, even as most of us fight them.

@BMcCarthy32:  100% I know it’s a big factor why McCaffrey was barely on my radar this year.  Oh it’s Gerhart 2, even though they aren’t similar at all.

@MarkStopa:  The hardest question:  assessing the extent to which that bias is wrong.

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@BMcCarthy32:  which is a 2-way street.  Trusting your initial instinct and trying to fight confirmation bias at the same time.

@MarkStopa:  These are the things nobody is willing to talk about because they’re not PC yet they drive so many decisions in sports.  Fascinating stuff.

 

It’s taboo to talk about this, much less admit that race impacts our decision-making process in fantasy.  Maybe that’s why I respect Brandon so much for doing so – publicly, no less.

So … what do you think?  Does race have an impact in your fantasy football selections?  Should it?

I know it does for me.  Going back to Scott’s initial comment, I barely gave Adam Thielen a second thought this year.  A second receiver on the Vikings?  When he’s white?  Pfft, I’ll pass.

I had similar thoughts on Jordy Nelson.  When Jordy’s YPT dipped to 8.3 in 2016 after being above 10.0 each of the prior four years, I was quick to presume Nelson had lost a step at age 32.  “Obviously a white receiver can’t have any explosion left if he’s down to 8.3 YPA at age 32,” I thought.  “Sure, some white receivers have succeeded as slot guys, see Wes Welker and Julian Edelman, but how many are true downfield threats?”  Steve LargentEric Decker?  Is there anyone else?

Brandon mentioned Christian McCaffrey, another great example.  While none of us wants to admit it, I’m certain we all thought about his race in evaluating his 2017 fantasy prospects.  After all, how many white running backs do we know who have been fantasy stars?

I decided to do a little research.

At running back, in the history of the (modern) NFL, these are the only white running backs I found who’ve had a modicum of success:  Mike AlstottJohn Riggins, Larry Csonka, and Peyton Hillis.  All four of those guys could be characterized as big, bruising types.  None of them are built like Christian McCaffrey.

So … is Brandon wrong for passing on McCaffrey in 2017?  Maybe.  But define “wrong.”

Fantasy football is a game we play to win, not a contest to see who can be most politically correct.  By passing on McCaffrey, Brandon sided with history, as no white running back with his body type / skill set has *ever* succeeded in the modern NFL (unless you consider Danny Woodhead a success, which I don’t).

At receiver, the list of successful white receivers is similarly short.  Other than the slot guys like Welker, it’s Nelson, Decker, Largent, Cris Collinsworth, Dwight Clark, and Ed McCaffrey, with a few less noteworthy names mixed in over the last 20-30 years.

So … going back to Scott’s initial question … why does Twitter like Stefon Diggs so much while barely giving Adam Thielen a second look?  My answer:  it’s because, even if just subconsciously, we all realize how few Caucasians have succeeded on the NFL level at skill positions, and we’d all rather bet on the most likely outcome, i.e. the white receiver doesn’t pan out, not the anomaly.

Talking openly about race in this fashion certainly leaves me open to criticism, especially when I’m admitting that race plays a factor in my fantasy decisions.  But this isn’t like how the NFL used to discriminate against black quarterbacks.  If Brandon McCarthy can tweet with me about race in the sports/fantasy world, and we’re all striving for every possible advantage in fantasy football, then we should all be able to address the elephant in the room when discussing fantasy players:  “he’s white.”  After all, we aren’t discriminating against anyone based on race, we’re all simply doing our best to field the best possible fantasy lineup.

BTW, Brandon is a great guy.  Follow him on Twitter.  @BMcCarthy32.  And follow me while you’re at it.  @MarkStopa