Saturday, December 19, 2015


               Those who follow college or pro football know that a white running back is about as rare as a black swan.  Even though whites constitute about 77% of the total U.S. population, they constitute but a miniscule portion of running backs in both the major college ranks and the NFL. 

                While white running backs are extremely rare in the major college ranks, they are virtually non-existent in the NFL.  Indeed, there does not appear to be a single white starter at the running back position among the 32 teams in the NFL today.  Of the two white backs whose names might be recognized by NFL fans – Toby Gerhart of Jacksonville and Danny Woodhead of San Diego – Gerhart is not a starter, and Woodhead is more of a situational receiver rather than a regular running back. 

                The situation is not much different in the college ranks.  Virtually all running backs in the major conferences of NCAA football, as in the NFL, are blacks.  Over the past 30 years or so (until this year, of which more below), only two white running backs have been recognized as genuine All-Americans, the aforementioned Toby Gerhart of Stanford in 2009 and Luke Staley of Brigham Young back in 2001.  And neither of them established himself as a starting tailback in the NFL, although Gerhart has seen spot duty as a starter from time to time.

                Given the great desirability and prestige of this position at both the college and professional level, this near-total absence of whites seems quite remarkable.  In most desirable and lucrative fields of endeavor, the absence of members of a particular race is considered a matter of serious concern, or at least curiosity.  And given America's liberal-dominated political and cultural environment, such concern usually rises to the level of outrage, sensational publicity, and even government legal action if blacks are the excluded or absent category.  As but one example of many, the paucity of black head coaches in the NFL resulted in adoption of the so-called "Rooney Rule," whereby NFL teams are required to interview minority candidates whenever there is a coaching or other senior football operations vacancy.

                Yet the extreme paucity of whites among major college and NFL running backs (not to mention defensive cornerbacks, where whites are even rarer) – a paucity that has persisted for at least three decades – goes virtually unnoticed and unremarked.  It is as though sports journalists and commentators – not to mention fans -- have assimilated an unwritten rule that the subject is off-limits for discussion.

                          Christian McCaffrey:  Smashing records and stereotypes 

                In complete contrast, when there is the slightest hint of so-called "under-representation" of blacks in any area of the sports world, the liberal nerds who dominate sports journalism can be relied upon to throw hissy fits of indignation and to hurl feckless accusations of discrimination.  As but one example, when the percentage of blacks in major league baseball declined from a level well above the black share of the talent pool (which is an international pool, including Latin American and East Asian ballplayers) to a lower level more commensurate with that share, cries of wounded indignation and dismay reverberated through the sports media.  The fact that the reduction in the black percentage of MLB players was mainly a function of young black athletes' preference for football and basketball, as well as the expanding influx of Latino players (many of whom are themselves part black), was lost on the promoters of the entirely bogus black ballplayer shortage.  See SR's exposition of this canard, The Contrived Black Ballplayer Shortage (Apr. 17, 2013), at

                Perhaps, however, the complete indifference to the absence of white running backs in football is simply based on widespread acceptance of the premise that white men are simply not fast enough to excel at this athletically demanding position. 

                At the highest levels of college football, and especially in the NFL, extreme speed is a mandatory qualification for the running back position.  In that regard, anyone familiar with the racial composition of the elite sprinting events at both the national and international level knows that blacks almost totally dominate these events.  Whether because of innate physiological differences, or some other inexplicable factor that is not readily apparent, neither whites nor any other racial or ethnic group seems to produce young men with the extreme running speed that is possessed by the black males who dominate speed-based athletic specialties.  As a result of this evident disparity, college and pro football coaches almost exclusively recruit blacks, and almost never recruit whites, for the running back position.

                                                                                    (Sports Illustrated, 1956) 
      McCaffrey's amazing grandfather, David Sime, with archrival Bobby Morrow                                           
                 Which brings us to Christian McCaffrey of Stanford University. 

                Almost out of nowhere, the sophomore McCaffrey emerged this year as one of the two or three top running backs in all college football.  He gained over 1,800 yards rushing, a total exceeded only by Derrick Henry of Alabama, who barely edged out McCaffrey for the Heisman Trophy, awarded to the outstanding player in college football.  But while Henry slightly surpassed McCaffrey as a runner from scrimmage, McCaffrey was in a class by himself as the top all-around back in college football.  He amassed an incredible 3,496 "all-purpose" yards, which include pass receiving and returning punts and kickoffs as well as total rushing yards.  This astonishing  total broke the all-time records previously held by the legendary Barry Sanders of Oklahoma State, considered by many as the greatest running back of all time.  Breaking Sanders' record was, needless to say, an enormous accomplishment.

                What separates McCaffrey from the very few distinguished white running backs of recent decades, like Gerhart and Luke Staley, is that they were primarily "power backs" with only modest speed, while McCaffrey is a genuine "speed-burner."  He has been laser-time at 4.50 sec. in the 40-yard dash, which would have placed him near the top end of the elite running backs who participated in the 2015 NFL Combine.  Yet McCaffrey is no light-weight.  He carries a solid, muscular 201 lbs. on his 6-foot even frame.  His great speed has not only enabled him to excel as a running back, but as a receiver, punt returner, and kick-off returner as well, all of which also demand great speed.

                Despite his current prominence, the young McCaffrey did not escape the prejudicial stereotypes that often attach to white athletes when they seek to qualify for positions assumed to be the exclusive preserve of black speedsters.  When he showed up for youth football camps or high school all-star combines, for example, observers would curtly dismiss his prospects as a running back, or assume he was a kicker or that he played some other position more "suitable" for white guys. 

                But fortunately, McCaffrey was recruited and coached by David Shaw, the present head football coach at Stanford, who was a teammate of Christian's father Ed as a Stanford undergraduate.  Shaw is black, and utterly lacking in the defensive assumptions about the limitations of white players that might affect a typically "by-the-book" and risk-averse white coach.  Not only did Coach Shaw quickly recognize Christian McCaffrey's superior ability as a running back, he has started him ahead of a collection of excellent black running backs – one of whom is actually Barry Sanders' son – on the basis of no-nonsense competition.  Shaw did not reach his current status as one of college football's best coaches by letting stereotypes of any kind get in the way of ruthless talent evaluation.

                The question naturally arises, then, what enabled McCaffrey to reach this elite level of speed that is seemingly so rare among white athletes.  The answer is:  the best gene combination imaginable, coupled with extensive training and focused ambition.

                McCaffrey's father is Ed McCaffrey, who was an extremely fast elite wide receiver at Stanford.  More impressively, he became a first-rank all-pro receiver in the NFL, where he also earned a remarkable three Super Bowl rings.  Ed's wife and Christian McCaffrey's mother is Lisa Sime, who was an outstanding soccer player at Stanford.  More importantly, Lisa is the daughter of the remarkable Dr. David Sime, who (as explained below) is probably the most critical genetic source of young McCaffrey's speed.  Lisa has jokingly remarked that she and Ed married "so we could breed fast white guys."  See


                                                                                   (courtesy Lisa McCaffrey)
                       Ed and Lisa McCaffrey with their Stanford Superstar Son

                To round out this remarkable chain of athletic genetic connections, McCaffrey's uncle (Ed's brother) is Billy McCaffrey, who was the very excellent shooting guard on Duke's great 1991 NCAA basketball championship team headed by Christian Laettner. 

                It is small wonder, therefore, that Christian McCaffrey has turned out to be a remarkably successful athlete.  But his inheritance of the great speed that distinguishes him from other white running backs can be confidently ascribed to his maternal grandfather, the illustrious and highly interesting David Sime (pronounced "sim").

                Born in Paterson, NJ, Sime was first recruited by Duke University in 1954 as a star baseball player.  But Sime was equally outstanding in football, where he played split end, and was later drafted by the Detroit Lions (but he never pursued pro football).  But when casually timed for the 100-yard dash on an unfinished grass surface, Sime ran an astonishing  9.8 seconds.  The rest was track history.  He went on to set world records in the 100- and 220-yard sprints, as well as in the 220-yard low hurdles.  In total, he broke world track records seven times, and in the mid-1950's this red-headed flash was considered by many to be the fastest human in the world.

                Regrettably, a series of bad luck episodes prevented Sime from winning the Olympic gold medals that his enormous  abilities warranted.  In the build-up to the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, Sime engaged in a monumental rivalry with Bobby Morrow of Abilene Christian University for world and U.S. sprinting supremacy.  In one of their epic duels, Sime edged out Morrow with a 9.4 time (then 1/10 of a second off the world record) in the 100-yard dash at the 1956 Drake Relays.  But Sime missed out on the Olympics that year due to an untimely groin injury, while his rival Morrow went on to win three gold medals and to be named Sports Illusrated's Sportsman of the Year.

                But Sime continued his track career with an eye toward the 1960 Olympics in Rome.  He was the leading sprinter on the U.S. team, but again he faced a formidable rival – in this case, the super-starting West German, Armin Hary.  Sime and Hary finished in a virtual dead-heat in the 100-meter dash, but Hary was awarded first place in a controversial photo-finish decision.  Sime then rallied to salvage a first place for the U.S. with a come-from-behind anchor leg in the 400-meter relay – only to again suffer disappointment when the U.S. was disqualified for a technical baton-exchange violation. 

                Notwithstanding his Olympic disappointments, however, Sime's achievements established him as one of the great sprinters of his era.  In recognition of this, as well as his enormous athletic versatility, he was named Duke's Outstanding Athlete of the 20th Century, beating out such Durham legends as Christian Laettner and Dick Groat. 

                Capping it all off, Sime showed that his values and priorities were of the same high quality as his athletic achievements.  He passed up opportunities in professional sports to earn a medical degree at Duke Medical School, and went on to a successful career as an ophthalmologist.  His admiring grandson Christian only half-jokingly calls him the real "most interesting man in the world" (it would take another essay to get into such fascinating  Simes episodes as his role assisting the CIA in attempting to secure the defection of a prominent  Russian Olympic long-jumper).

                                                            * * *

                Considering this distinguished athletic lineage, it is not so surprising after all that Christian McCaffrey has reached the highest levels of achievement as a swift running back -- notwithstanding the stereotypical assumptions about the speed limitations of white athletes.  McCaffrey's case strongly indicates that an athlete's individual genetic heredity, rather than the generalized traits or limitations of his or her race, can be more pertinent in determining the capacities and propensities that lead to elite athletic performance.  Unlike the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, therefore, the elite white running back and the white sprinter are not doomed to extinction after all – as long as the likes of Ed McCaffrey and Lisa Sime meet, get married, and get busy.


  1. I like the read. I actually believe there is a whole cultural impact on young white athletes in black dominated sports in America. Beyond genes, culture has created a belief system among much of the young white athletes that they can't aspire to greatness in said sports/positions bc of their whiteness. Much like leaders of the black community say they struggle to point to young blacks the successes that can be had in academic oriented opportunities, white parents can have that same struggle in regard to certain sports or positions within a sport. There are probably a lot more young white athletes that have the genetic inclination (not likely McCaffrey's but he is at the highest end of the spectrum) to excel at positions or sports but they are not being given the right mindset to believe it and therefore work to pursue it at a young age. Why is it that there are so many great "white" basketball players from other parts of the world who are making it in the NBA? Most recently Porzingis and you can go to Ginobli, or Rubio, or Gasol's, or back to Kukoc, etc etc. My take is that they were not raised in cultures that disincentives them to believe in their capacity to be great in that sport relative to anyone in their culture. I have seen the interaction in a pick up game where young white boys and black boys came together and the black boys immediately asserted without any play having yet occurred that they were the better players because that is the way it is. I am not saying this is common or uncommon. I am saying there is an inherent sense of ability that is imbued to children based on what they are exposed to. The underlying cultural structure reinforced this and if the white boy's did not have a strong belief in their capacity they would have already had the existing cultural messaging supporting this misguided belief and their will or capacity to compete reduced. After all you have to believe to achieve. Why is that white athletes in other cultures/countries, particularly in basketball come here and succeed in the "best" league in the world on a very regular basis? If I adhered to what our culture implies about the white athlete in black dominated sports, I would only be reinforcing the stereotypes that would minimize my son's perception of his capacity to challenge the existing paradigm. And if perception is reality we can understand why young white athletes don't challenge, or aren't given the opportunity to challenge, the existing beliefs surrounding sports or positions in sports. This is no different than minority arguments relative to other professional realms and unfair analysis based on skin color or name. However what I am conveying has nothing to do with what is unfair but rather how I intend to support my son's capacity for believing in what he might achieve despite the color of his skin and the associated perceptions relative to his ability. And that means strongly supporting the understanding that achievement in sport, even if there are variations genetic predispositions to abilities, can be overcome with commitment competence and confidence.

  2. Good points, Marc. When I played in the Philly H.S. leagues, and down here against DeMatha and the like back in the day, this inferiority mentality hadn't set in, and it just depended on who was confident and assertive, white or black. Bobby Lewis of St. John's (later UNC), for example, could leap as high as anyone and was self-confident to the point of arrogance. But there's another factor. Many of the most athletic white guys opt for sports like swimming (aha!), hockey, skiing, surfing, etc., so that accounts for at least some of the disparity in b-ball and football.