Tuesday, November 22, 2011

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

The lack of black kickers in the NFL, a league that's long been dominated by African American players, is one of the most perplexing sports anomalies of all time. The numbers are staggeringly low, so low they don't make sense and beg the question, how did this happen? (post updated Oct. 2022)

The NFL is in its 57th season since the Super Bowl era began in 1966. Roughly 60% of all NFL players have been black. Of the approx. 1,674 team roster spots for place kickers during that time, only 14 spots have been held by 5 black kickers.

Incredibly, just 5 black place kickers have played since 1966. 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.
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, look at the phenomena from the beginning of the Super Bowl era until now, or from the 1966-67 season onward. 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. (Since then, several black punters have played including Marquette King, Pressley Harvin III and Corliss Waitman.)

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

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 57 year period would be (24)+(25)+(26*8)+(28*19)+(30*4)+(31*3)+(32*21) = 1,674 kickers. This does not mean that many have played, just that there have been 1,674 team roster spots for kickers for those years.

If over half of all NFL players have been black, one might assume about half, or 837, of the kicking spots would be held by black players. The odds of having so few are astronomical. It's like flipping a coin 1,674 times and having it land on tails only 14 times.

Even historically black colleges and universities primarily have had, and continue to have, white and Latino kickers. Those exact stats are difficult to get, but the trend remains. What might explain this? 

During the 70s and 80s very few 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? Why has this position remained so white and Latino? Is this an unspoken and bizarre case of prejudice?

Here are the main opinions I've heard to explain this over the decades:

1. Black athletes don't want to play kicker. Hey, some athletes want to play the game, period. If a kid can't make the team at receiver, linebacker or another position, they might try for kicker if they have talent, and potentially go on to college or pro ball if they can.

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. If kickers still don't get respect, then there is something wrong with the mindset of NFL players, coaches and fans. 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. But the average kicker makes great money now and has for a while. Today's top kickers are making over $20 million in just a few years. Back in 2013 Sebastian Janikowski signed a 4 year, $16 million contract with the Raiders. Even way back in 1967 the average kicker pay was around $10,000 (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. 25% of the MLS is black. Many have been stars on the USMNT including Altidore, Beasley, Zardes and others. Additionally, kickers can come from foreign countries, where soccer is king. 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 an older mindset but perhaps still active, which is ironic since kickers make up the bulk of the all-time leading scorers. The top leading scorers in NFL history played as place kickers. The highest scoring non-kicker of all time is Jerry Rice at #41 with 1,256 points. After Rice, Emmitt Smith is #59 as the second highest non-kicker with 1,052 points. (However, QB's aren't credited points per touchdown pass, so factor that in. If they were, Tom Brady would top the list.)

It would appear this may be due to a lingering position prejudice that has been difficult to kick, pun intended. 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 place kickers white or Latino by coaches and players, then that's a strange possibility to explain it. Sounds bizarre but not the worst theory on why this has happened.

This trend is probably about to end. The kids out there certainly can do it.

What do you think? Leave a comment.