The racial make-up of the New England Patriots

Kansas City Star sports columnist Jason Whitlock uses two of America’s obsessions – sports and race – to cook up an eye-brow raising column and sprinkles it with a third: Winning.

In a column on FoxSports.com Whitlock writes:

African-American football players caught up in the rebellion and buffoonery of hip hop culture have given NFL owners and coaches a justifiable reason to whiten their rosters. That will be the legacy left by Chad, Larry and Tank Johnson, Pacman Jones, Terrell Owens, Michael Vick and all the other football bojanglers.

In terms of opportunity for American-born black athletes, they’re going to leave the game in far worse shape than they found it.

It’s already starting to happen. A little-publicized fact is that the Colts and the Patriots — the league’s model franchises — are two of the whitest teams in the NFL. If you count rookie receiver Anthony Gonzalez, the Colts opened the season with an NFL-high 24 white players on their 53-man roster. Toss in linebacker Naivote Taulawakeiaho “Freddie” Keiaho and 47 percent of Tony Dungy’s defending Super Bowl-champion roster is non-African-American. Bill Belichick’s Patriots are nearly as white, boasting a 23-man non-African-American roster, counting linebacker Tiaina “Junior” Seau and backup quarterback Matt Gutierrez.

Whitlock is really using race as a proxy for cultural distance from hip hop, but, well, he brought it up, so…

Since one imagines that head coach Bill Belichick factors in everything when he build his team it seems legitimate to ponder the racial make up of the team’s roster, especially since this year’s is no aberration. Way back in 2001, when New England won its first Super Bowl with what possibly was the least talented Super Bowl-winning team ever, I noticed that the Patriots and their Big Game opponents Saint Louis Rams were among the whitest teams in the league. So let’s give it a whirl.

New England Patriots have 22 white players on the current 53-man active roster. 15 of those play on offense, three are special teams specialists (kicker, punter and longsnapper) and only four play on defense (one of them, linebacker Larry Izzo probably gets most of his plays on special teams). As Whitlock points out, there is one more non-African-American on defense, Junior Seau.

Two-thirds of the offensive players are white compared to one-sixth or so of the defensive players. In years past the difference has been a little less pronounced, with a few more whites on defense and a couple of less on offense. On the field, the difference is even bigger this year. The Patriots rarely have fewer than seven white players on the field and on the final clock-killing drives against Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins there was only one black player (tight end Marcellus Rivers) on the field. On defense, it’s not surprising if outside linebacker Mike Vrabel is the only white player on the field.

New England has no white defensive backs and only one white receiver, Wes Welker. Eight of the nine offensive linemen are white (as are both offensive linemen on the practice squad, which is not part of the active roster). Two of the team’s five runningbacks are white, and both of those guys (Heath Evans and Kyle Eckel) are the prototypical plodding fullbacks (though of a more traditional kind than today’s more common strictly lead-blocking and pass-catching fullbacks). The team’s one white tight end is Kyle Brady, who is strong at run blocking but too slow to add much to the passing game (although he frequently runs patterns and almost never pass-protects) while African-American tight end Benjamin Watson is a good receiver who doesn’t add much to the blocking game. One might almost be tempted to suggest that the less speed a position requires, the more likely it is to be filled with a white player.

One theory might be that white players generally are undervalued and therefore can be had at a discount, which would be quite important in this era with the salary cap. However, a hefty chunk of the white contingent on the roster is made up of quarterback Tom Brady and the five quite well-compensated starting offensive linemen (Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Stephen Neal and Nick Kaczur). Welker cost the Patriots two draft picks and reportedly $18 million in guaranteed money. By comparison, All-Universe wide receiver Randy Moss cost a fourth-round pick and a couple of mil. Now, that’s value.

What is one to make of Chad Johnson and his impact on his team? Whitlock writes:

Football fans are aware of [Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin] Lewis’ love affair with Chad Johnson, the Flavor Flav of the gridiron. Johnson’s insistence on conducting a minstrel show during games has long been reluctantly tolerated by Lewis. Johnson, I guess, is just too talented, productive and well-compensated for Lewis to discipline. So Lewis has chosen to enable, going as far as making excuses when Johnson’s selfish behavior extended to an alleged locker-room shoving match with coaches (including a swing at Lewis) at halftime of the Bengals’ Jan. 8, 2006 playoff loss to the Steelers.

Coming off an 11-5 regular season and having been crowned the toast of Cincinnati, Lewis responded to that Johnson meltdown by vowing to cut the player who leaked the fight information to the media.

Since then, the Bengals have been one of the league’s biggest disappointments, finishing 8-8 last season and starting 1-4 this season. Injuries have played a significant role in Cincy’s troubles, but so has a lack of on- and off-field discipline and focus. Lewis’ coddling of Chad Johnson has destroyed the chemistry that made the Bengals a playoff team in 2005.

As many Patriots and Bengals fans know, Belichick has lavished praise on Johnson, and not just in the way he’ll describe any lead-footed, concrete-handed fourth-string receiver as a sure-thing future Hall of Famer. No, Belichick speaks of Johnson the way he spoke of Welker last year when the diminutive receiver played for the Dolphins. I have no idea how Belichick views the situation in Cincinnati, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he thinks whatever performance issues the Bengals have are Lewis’s rather than Johnson’s (personally, I’m inclined to blame Lewis, as I suggested after the Patriots @ Bengals Monday Night Football game earlier this season). At any rate, there aren’t many reasons to believe that Belichick would pass up the chance to add Johnson to the roster.

Whitlock also writes:

I’m sure when we look up 10 years from now and 50 percent — rather than 70 percent — of NFL rosters are African-American, some Al Sharpton wannabe is going to blame the decline on a white-racist plot.

For that to happen, every team in the NFL would have to replace one African-American player with one non-African-American player every year, and then replace one more African-American player with one non-African-American player on top of that. That seems quite unlikely unless there is a shift way from today’s emphasis on speed through a number of rule changes. But if those rule changes did happen and made black players relatively less competitive than they are today then I suppose it would not be unreasonable for the wannabe Al Sharptons of the world to pipe up about white-racist plot or what not.

Kansas City Chiefs has 14 white players and Bengals 16 (if I counted correctly). The currently winless Miami Dolphins have 15 white players while the equally winless Saint Louis Rams have 21.