Ironically, Riley Cooper and Michael Vick Show the Very Best Of the NFL

Embattled Philadelphia Eagle Riley Cooper returned to practice on Wednesday, his first since undergoing sensitivity training as a result of using the N-word in a widely-publicized video last week. Upon retaking the field, Cooper lined up at his position where, as usual, he was a stark minority.

For all the focus on Riley Cooper the white man, little note has been given to the interesting, if unrelated, fact that he happens to play a position dominated by black men. Wide receiver is football’s second most racially homogenous position: In 2011, 86% of NFL wideouts were African American. That’s nearly an all-time high for diversity at the position, down from 92% in 1998. When Cooper joins his teammates on the receiving corps, he will be the only Euro-American player in the group. (New arrival Greg Salas, who is of Mexican descent, is the other non-black receiver. In having two non-black members of their receiving corps, the Eagles far surpass the NFL average of approximately .7 non-black receivers per team.)

What’s particularly unique in Philly is that as things stand now, Riley Cooper is going to begin the season as the league’s only starting white receiver catching passes from a black quarterback. The only other white receiver on a team with a black starting quarterback is San Francisco’s Austin Collie, an injury-prone insurance signing who is unlikely to get many chances to catch balls thrown by Niners QB Colin Kaepernick, who is biracial.

The racialization of football positions is a familiar topic to observers of the game who have long wondered why there are no white cornerbacks, very few white running backs, and historically few non-white quarterbacks in the NFL. The likeliest answer seems to be that though football coaches are only concerned with putting together the best team possible, it stands to reason that some would employ subconscious, potentially prejudicial lenses in determining which skill set players can execute.

Black players are often assigned to positions that require more strength and/or speed than brains. Defensive linemen, who don’t need as deep a handle on the playbook as their offensive (majority white) counterparts, are majority black. The same goes for running backs. Such was the story of Brad Smith, who after being one of the nation’s best college quarterbacks was moved to receiver under Chad Pennington, Kellen Clemens, and that QB exemplar, Mark Sanchez.

The reverse stereotype also exists. White players in traditionally "black" positions, such as wide receivers, have faced discrimination from coaches and opponents. “Every team did it,” white running back Peyton Hillis said of his experience with racial taunting. “They’ll say, ‘You white boy, you ain’t gonna run on us today. This is ridiculous. Why are you giving offensive linemen the ball?’”

Scouting reports tend to compare white receivers to other players of the same color, and usually with the same attributes: “Hard worker with good hands who lacks straight-line speed,” in the words of a PFT writer who analyzed NFL.com’s comically racial player summaries.

Football’s racialization is most noticeable at quarterback. The sport’s most important position, the QB must possess an otherworldly combination of intelligence, athleticism, and poise to succeed. And white skin doesn’t hurt. Though the NFL is approximately 70% black, only 12% of starting QBs heading into last season were. Ozzie Newsome, now the GM of the Ravens, recounted his entry into the league: “I was a pretty good quarterback growing up, but when it came to organized football, I knew I should become a wide receiver, because from everything that I was reading, all the blacks were getting their positions changed.”

A decade ago, this trend began to change when the NFL first embraced the possibilities of a dual-threat quarterback, many of whom were black. The two vanguards of this shift were Donovan McNabb and his dazzling play for the Eagles, and Michael Vick, who electrified the Falcons before exiting football in his dog-fighting scandal. By opening up the quarterback position to African Americans to an unprecedented degree — allowing current stars like RG3 and Cam Newton to be discussed as viable franchise players — they also chipped away at the racialization of other positions. If we were to compare the media mentions of the race of pre-scandal Riley Cooper to, say, Ed McCaffrey, we no doubt would see an overdue colorblindness becoming the norm.

It's poetic justice that the quarterback feeding the ball to Riley Cooper, the white receiver, is a respected, mature Michael Vick. Though Cooper may have further to go to win back the respect of his teammates, they can take comfort in recognizing that Vick-to-Cooper is arguably the most socially progressive passing combination in the league.