McCoy is not the first to accuse the Eagles’ head coach of racial prejudice. ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith said after McCoy was traded from the Eagles to the Bills a few months ago that Chip Kelly’s roster moves “leave a few brothers feeling uncomfortable.”
Former Eagles offensive lineman and assistant coach, Tra Thomas, echoed those comments when he asserted that a number of players on the team believe there is a “hint of racism” in the locker room. And McCoy implied that some of his Philadelphia teammates held this belief about their head coach as well.
These charges of bias stem largely from the Eagles’ status as last season’s whitest team in the NFL and the way that Chip Kelly dealt with Riley Cooper’s racial controversy. Cooper, a white wide receiver for the Eagles, was caught on tape using the N-word at a June 2013 country music concert that his head coach also attended. Despite the uproar caused by the video, Cooper was not harshly disciplined and signed a five-year $22.5 million extension in early 2014.
Nevertheless, several commentators have been skeptical of, if not downright hostile to, the accusations against Kelly (see: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Most Eagles’ fans seem to share that skepticism too. Over 90 percent of the people who responded to an unscientific poll by a New Jersey radio station said that “LeSean McCoy was out of line for his insinuations about Chip Kelly.”
Kelly’s defenders suggest that McCoy, a Pennsylvania native, simply has sour grapes over being traded away from his home-state team. They also point to recent roster moves, which brought African American free agents and draft choices to Philadelphia, as evidence against the head coach’s supposed racial favoritism.
But what do the data say about the importance of race in NFL roster moves? While it is impossible to precisely quantify such things, we can still glean some insights into the racial dynamics of pro football’s personnel decisions by analyzing Best Tickets’ Unofficial 2014 NFL Player Census.
The analyses that follow use that data on every NFL player’s racial background to determine just how different the Eagles’ racial composition was from the rest of the league in 2014. I also examine whether teams that have African Americans in leadership positions (e.g. head coach and/or general manager) are more likely to have black players on their rosters.
The graph below shows the Eagles had substantially fewer black players on their 2014 roster than the NFL average. Indeed, the 17 percentage point difference between the Eagles and the rest of the league translated into over nine fewer black players than the NFL mean.
Those differences in black player percentages between the Eagles and the league average are highly significant in statistical parlance, meaning it’s very unlikely that Philadelphia’s underutilization of African Americans in 2014 was due to chance circumstances. So much so, in fact, that our statistical confidence is beyond the threshold that the courts and bureaucracy generally recognize as potential discrimination.
The Eagles’ underrepresentation of black players in 2014 cannot simply be chalked up to the team that Chip Kelly inherited a few years ago, either. Philadelphia’s 2012 roster was right around the league average of 68% African American before Kelly took the reins in January 2013.
Perhaps more importantly, the graph also indicates that teams with black head coaches and/or general managers — the Bengals, Bills, Browns, Buccaneers, Giants, Lions, Raiders, Ravens, Steelers, and Texans — tend to have more African Americans on their rosters than teams with exclusively white leadership.
To be sure, these differences are not especially large. The 4.6 percentage point difference between teams with and without black leadership only translates into about two or three more African American players per team. The relationship between more black leadership and more black players is once again statistically significant, though.
These findings, of course, come with caveats. For starters, they say nothing about any head coach or general manager’s intent (or lack thereof) to discriminate. Nor can my simple analyses rule out alternative explanations beyond random variation for the patterns uncovered. And it will take much more work to determine whether the results from 2014 are an aberration or a consistent feature of the NFL landscape.
The findings, nonetheless, suggest that even in the NFL — an ostensible meritocracy where performance is much more objective and transparent than it is in other professions — race still matters in personnel decisions.
Michael Tesler is Assistant Professor of Political Science at UC Irvine, co-author of Obama’s Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America, and author of the forthcoming, Most Racial: Politics and Race in the Obama Era.