Thursday, December 3, 2009

Race, College Football, and the Curious Case of Toby Gerhart

Guy wants to know "[w]hy are the faces at the bottom of the well always the same ones?" For an answer, look to the race for the Heisman Trophy this year, and in particular the candidacy of Stanford running back Toby Gerhart. In case you don't know, this would be Stanford's white running back. According to Phil Taylor of Sports Illustrated, his chances of winning aren't very good, apparently because of the fact that he is white, not in spite of it.

This is a remarkable story not only about the world of college football but, far more importantly, for what it tells us about the world of hiring and debates about the need for diversity.

Put simply, white players are not supposed to be running backs, the same way that black players were not supposed to be quarterbacks not that long ago. In 2003, for example, a white running back for the Chicago bears played one game in place of the injured black starter. The white running back, Brock Forsey, had a spectacular game. By the next game, however, the starter was back from the injury list, and Forsey never saw the field again. He carried the ball three more times during his brief and undistinguished NFL career. To this day, he cannot explain what happened. "No one ever said anything about race. But there may be some preconceived notions out there. A white guy from Idaho isn't what you have in mind when you envision an NFL running back."

This story in mind, think about the history of the Heisman Trophy, awarded every year to "the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity." What exactly the standard to win the award is, and who deserves to win any given year, is anybody's guess. But we know this: from the inception of the award in 1935, twenty-seven black players have won it, the first one coming in 1961. From these twenty-seven, twenty have been running backs. Yet prior to 1961, of the twenty-six players who won the award, eighteen were white halfbacks (i.e., running backs). We know exactly what happened post-1961: college football coaches opened their doors to black student athletes. Racism made all the difference in the world. This was a revolution in the truest sense of the term. Black players only needed a chance to show what they can do.

So the question is, can Toby Gerhart, white running back from Stanford University, win the award this year? If historical trends hold, the answer appears to be no. In this vein, here is a question from a nationally syndicated radio personality: "But lets be honest here, Toby. White tailback. How many . . . coaches are looking at you saying, 'I don't think you can play that position for me, but I think you're a football player.'"

Now take that question and apply it to the world of universities, and law schools in particular. The numbers are still pretty skewed, and some law schools are yet to hire their first professor of color in years, if not ever. Dirty-dozen lists abound. I cannot help but wonder: how often do we go through the hiring process and say to ourselves exactly what people are telling Toby Gerhart, or what Brock Forsey thinks happened to him? In other words, how often do we look at a candidate of color and envision a law professor? And for those who get hired, how often is the road to tenure filled with barriers not faced by everybody else? How often do we say the same thing in reference to law clerkships, law review editorships or, as we saw during the confirmation hearings of Justice Sotomayor, for appointment to the Supreme Court?

I don't think racism alone explains why Toby Gerhart is unlikely to win the Heisman trophy, nor does it explain the dearth of professors of color at our law schools, or "why the faces at the bottom of the well [are] always the same ones." But surely, to suggest that we live in a post-racial America, an America where we are ultimately judged by the content of our character, is nothing more than a canard, and a cruel and dangerous one at that.