Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Black Kickers in the NFL 1966 - Present: Final Prejudice or Rarest Athlete?

Why are there no black kickers in the NFL, a league that's long been dominated by African American players? This may be the most perplexing sports question of all time.

The NFL is in its 53rd season of the Super Bowl era (post updated Sept 2018). Since the Super Bowl era began, about 60% of all NFL players have been black. Of the approximately 1,514 team roster spots for kickers during that time, only 14 spots have been held by 5 black kickers.

Incredibly, just 5 black kickers have played since the 1966-67 season. Gene Mingo kicked for the '67 Dolphins and Redskins plus the Steelers for '69-'70. Donald Igweibuike kicked for the Buccaneers '85-'89 and Vikings in '90. Obed Ariri played one season for both the Bucs '84 and Redskins '87. Then there was Cedric Oglesby (Cardinals '01) and most recently Justin Medlock (Chiefs '07 and Panthers '12).

5 kickers with brief careers (except Mingo if you factor in 1960-'66).
This does not include Chad Johnson's preseason extra point in 2009. It also does not include Lonnie Perrin, who did part-time kickoff duty for Denver ('76-'78) and Washington ('79) but did not attempt any known field goals in the NFL (added via comments).

To keep it simple due to over 90 years of NFL history with major civil rights issues for some of that time, look at the phenomena from the beginning of the Super Bowl era until now, or from the 1966-67 season until 2018-19. That means this conversation post-dates Cookie Gilchrist, who primarily played fullback and never kicked field goals or PATs beyond 1962.

Also note that place-kicking and punting are different positions. Though this post is on kicking, the number of black punters in NFL history is almost as bizarre in rarity. ESPN's Scott Ostler said, "Equally few African American punters have secured regular-season NFL jobs -- most notably Greg Coleman and the late Reggie Roby, who between them kicked for seven different NFL teams over 12- and 16-year careers, respectively. (After this quote came out, Marquette King has punted for the Raiders and Broncos.)

This is how the NFL, including both the AFL and NFL from 1966-70 and the NFL since, has expanded from 24 teams to 32:

1966 - 24 teams
1967 - 25 teams
1968 - 26 teams (1970 AFL and NFL merged to NFL)
1976 - 28 teams
1995 - 30 teams
1999 - 31 teams
2002 - 32 teams

The minimum number of kickers needed, assuming just one kicker per team per year, for this 53 year period would be (24)+(25)+(26*8)+(28*19)+(30*4)+(31*3)+(32*16) = 1,514 kickers. This does not mean that many have played, just that there have been 1,514 team roster spots for kickers for those years.

If roughly half all NFL players have been black, one might assume about half, or 757, of the kicking spots would be held by black players. The odds of having so few are astronomical. It's like flipping a coin 1,514 times and having it land on tails only 14 times. The math is mind-boggling. Like quantum physics, it doesn't make sense to anyone who truly understands it.

There once was a day when hardly any QBs were black. Those days are long gone thankfully. Then there were few head coaches but fortunately that's changed too; there were 7 black head coaches in 2011 alone. So what gives with the kickers? How can we explain this anomaly?

Here are some arguments I've heard:

1. Black athletes don't want to play kicker. Hey, some athletes want to play the game, period. If they can't make the team at receiver, linebacker or another position, they might try for kicker or punter if they have talent. Some people actually take pride in kicking.

2. Kickers don't get any respect. Historically kickers have been smaller or less athletic than other players, though it's ridiculous not to respect the kicker. It's how the game starts and often how it ends. Every team wants a strong kicker for the option of long field goals. The job has major pressure and importance in the biggest games. If kickers still don't get respect, then there is something wrong with the mindset of NFL players, fans and coaches. And even yet, how would a lack of respect separate the races for a job?

3. Kickers don't make good money in the NFL. This used to be truer decades ago than it is today. In comparison to how much the other positions made on average, yes, kickers often made less. To a lot of people, a median average salary of over a million dollars is perceived as "good money." Sebastian Janikowski signed a 4 year, $15 million contract with the Raiders. Justin Tucker and Mason Crosby signed for more. Stephen Gostkowski signed with the Patriots for even more at $17 million. Even way back in 1967 the average kicker pay was $9,700 (about half that of the other positions) which was still decent money for a part-time job.

4. Most of the kickers played soccer first. Blacks don't play soccer. Again, this used to be truer decades ago but isn't true anymore. Approx. 22% of the MLS is black. Many stars on the US Men's National team are or have been African Americans, including Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Gyasi Zardes and others. Additionally, many kickers come from foreign countries, where soccer is king and played by millions of black kids. Donald Igwebuke and Obed Ariri came from Nigeria, but why haven't others? African nations are full of soccer players as well as Brazil, Columbia, England, France, Germany and more. Why haven't more of these kids come to the NFL or been recruited?

5. Kickers aren't seen as that important. This is similar to the respect thing but goes even deeper and is even more ridiculous. Kickers make up the bulk of the all-time leading scorers. The top 36 leading scorers in NFL history played as place kickers. The highest scoring non-kicker of all time is Jerry Rice at #37 with 1,256 points. After Rice, Emmitt Smith is #53 as the second highest non-kicker with 1,052 points. Sounds like a pretty important position if the way to win the game is to score more points than the opponent.

It's not my intention to offend anyone; it just seems to be the biggest anomaly in sports. Whether this has to do with a deep, hidden and perhaps subconscious agenda to keep kickers white by players and coaches, then that's a strange possibility. Sounds bizarre but not the worst theory on why this has happened.

This trend is probably about to end, especially with more black kids playing soccer and higher salaries and respect for kickers. There's no reason we can't have more. The kids out there certainly can do it.

What do you think? Leave a comment.