Saturday, October 11, 2008

McGuffie: The Great White Hope?

In order to take my mind off of Michigan's embarrassing loss to the University of Toledo this afternoon, I figured I would write about one of the Wolverines' bright spots this season, freshmen running back Sam McGuffie.

Having displaced upperclassmen Kevin Grady and Brandon Minor as U of M's main tailback, it is obvious that McGuffie is talented. As evidenced by rushing for his second 100 yard game this season in his young career, McGuffie clearly has a good career ahead of him playing Big Ten football.

But for many casual fans of the game, he's famous for two things: 1) His YouTube highlight reel from high school (which you can view here) in which he leaps over defenders (sorry, Knowshon Moreno, Sam was doing that in high school before you dropped it on my Chippewas) and 2) The fact that he is white. For many that expressed concerns about his ability to compete at the major college level, comments about his size and toughness were merely cover-ups about the real issue: Dude is white and plays tailback.

There are all sorts of factors that play into stereotypes and perceptions and there is no area in our society where this gets played out more than when sports and race intersect. Just as black quarterbacks were a rarity for so many years, it appears that white running backs have now entered into a similar discussion. In many respects so many black quarterbacks from previous eras got moved to other positions like wide receiver or defensive back not because they didn't have the physical tools or leadership abilities, but because of perceptions because of their skin color.

So, too, this reality faces white running backs with the talent and ability to play big-time ball. Jemele Hill, columnist for, wrote an intriguing article on this subject recently. She deals with the nuanced history of race and football, especially as it pertains to the positions of quarterback and running back. You can read the whole piece here, but here is an interesting excerpt:
"But there is evidence -- some of it anecdotal -- to suggest there is a degree of profiling when it comes to white runners.
"It used to be for the athletes playing in high school, if you were African-American and playing quarterback, the assumption was they were going to put you at wide receiver," James said. "That trend has been reversed and there's not a perception [African-Americans] can't play quarterback, but there is a perception that if you're a white guy and a running back, you need to move your position."
[Toby] Gerhart, a junior at Stanford, said opponents used to express surprise when they realized he was the feature back.
"There were definitely times after games, the DBs, safeties or linebackers would say, 'God man, you can move for a white guy,'" said Gerhart, who ranks 15th in the nation in rushing yards among Football Bowl Subdivision players. "Even at the college level, my freshman year I played some and after they tackled me, they'd say, 'Man, you run good for a white guy' or 'You're my favorite white running back.'"
Recently, according to Gerhart, one of his friends was playing an NCAA video game and created a player with Gerhart's speed and dimensions (6-foot-2, 230 pounds, 4.43 in the 40-yard dash). When his friend made the player white, the game automatically described the video version of Gerhart as "power back." When his friend changed the skin color to black, he became an "all-purpose back."
"Maybe it's just basic stereotypes," Gerhart said. "Even now you're described as a 'power back.' They still discredit speed."
I like to joke that I could have gone much further in my football career had I only been bigger, faster and stronger. Other than those areas, I was quite a player :) When players have the ability and drive to compete at the highest levels of their sport, but are denied opportunities because of their ethnicity, it only goes to show how far we have to go when it comes to stereotyping and treating people on merit and not appearance.

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