The Glass Line of Scrimmage

Latinos account for 17 percent of the U.S. population. So why are we underrepresented in professional football?

The Latino population in the United States has grown exponentially in the last half century, integrating into Main Street, Wall Street and even Sesame Street. But despite today’s strong Latino presence in most industries, Latinos still face an uphill battle to break into professional sports.

Soccer continues to reign over all other sports internationally, yet it is just the third most popular sport in the U.S., with 13 million players nationwide, despite being a cultural favorite in Latin America.

Internationally, American Football is dwarfed by the global love of Soccer, but only 26.5 million viewers in the U.S. watched the World Cup in 2014 compared to 114.4 million U.S. viewers who watched the 2015 Super Bowl.

America’s favorite pastime, baseball, has become a pivotal part of Cuban, Dominican, Mexican and Puerto Rican culture, not only as a recreational activity, but as an opportunity to immigrate to the United States. For example, more than 29 percent of Major League Baseball (MLB) players were Latino during the 2015 baseball season, according to Sports Business News’ 2015 MLB Racial and Gender Report Card.

But it’s professional football where the lack of Latino players really gets stark. While the 2015 National Football League (NFL) season saw a 12 percent increase in Latino viewership from 2012 to 1.7 million, only 26 out of 1,696 active players, or 1.6 percent, were Latino.

This massive disparity begs the question: why?

Is there a lack of interest or a preference in the Latino community that discourages Latinos from pursuing professional football? Are there genetic factors creating a disadvantage for Latino players who want to pursue the sport? Or maybe, the pipeline to professional football begins so early and is so narrow that most Latino students and their families are unaware of the benefits of pursuing the sport and have more difficulty accessing the resources necessary for potential players to succeed.

The Football Pipeline

To understand this disparity, it is important to understand the pipeline to professional football, which is dependent on starting age, access to resources and performance. Between 60–70 percent of all NFL players began their careers playing Pop Warner football, a youth sports organization that provides football training, coaching and organized teams for boys ages 5–12, according to the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA). Pop Warner costs up to $200 a season and is available in 42 states and seven countries.

If Pop Warner and similar organizations are strong contributors to the pipeline, are Latino families able to access youth sports groups to start their children in football?

A 2015 Ohio University study on Diversity Demographics of American Youth Sports found that the average age of entry into a team or organized sport for Hispanic children was 8.2, as opposed to White children, who on average joined at 6.6 years of age.

Hispanic children are starting their athletic participation later in life in comparison to their Black and White counterparts. And while 0.5–1.6 years may not seem like much, the starting age of athletes is a significant proponent to their future success as athletes.

Additionally, the study found that family income played a large role in determining starting age; children whose household annual income was less than $35,000 joined a team or organized sport, on average, at the age of 8.1. Children whose household annual income was more than $100,000 joined at the age of 6.3.

Factoring in location, children living in urban areas have less access to organized sports: 80 percent of underage boys living in urban or rural areas participated in at least one organized sports as opposed to 89 percent of underage boys residing in suburban areas. Overall, the study concluded that only 15 percent of male athletes who participated in organized youth sports in 2015 were Hispanic.

While organized youth sports are technically accessible to Latino families seeking to start their children in the football pipeline, household income and residence impact access to these resources. This lack of access means a narrower pipeline, ultimately impacting the starting age of these athletes.

Outliers in the Pipeline

Although the impact of youth sports organizations is seen throughout the league, there are still Latino athletes who become professional players without this pipeline resource. One example is Tony Zendejas, who played in the NFL for the Houston Oilers, Los Angeles Rams, Atlanta Falcons and the San Francisco 49ers from 1983–1995 as a kicker.

Zendejas is an outlier to the football pipeline theory. Born in Curimeo, Mexico, in 1960, Zendejas immigrated with his family to Los Angeles at the age of 6. His parents were migrant workers, pushing Zendejas and his brothers to pursue education. In high school, Zendejas found his passion for sports, leading the way for his brother and two cousins, who eventually became professional football players as well.

During the beginning of his athletic career, Zendejas recalls, there were no real resources to train and help him develop as a kicker. “When I was in high school my senior year, we had a new coach. He didn’t really push me because he didn’t even know me. Normally, high school coaches are the ones to send out letters to colleges,” said Zendejas.

“So, at that point, I did all the work myself after I had a good senior season. I was making 50-yard field goals! So, I made a tape and I went to USC to talk to John Robinson, who was the head coach, and Gil Haskell, who was the special teams coach, and I showed them the video. They told me that they had already given a kicker the scholarship. If not, they would’ve taken me,” he said.

Later, Zendejas was offered a football scholarship to the University of Nevada, Reno, where he developed his performance with little direction and few resources. “Back then, ’78, ’79, there were no coaches for kickers. I coached myself — I learned how to coach myself. Even when I played in my first years in college, I taught the coaches how to coach me,” he said.

When asked about the lack of Latinos in professional football, Zendejas proposed two explanations: resources and genetics. “There are clinics that you could learn stuff if you have the talent, but they cost money. In those clinics, you could learn something — they could make you really special. But if you don’t have the resources, you might never find out. Financially, that is a big burden,” he said.

Zendejas added, “A lot of Latinos don’t have the speed; they don’t have the size that’s required to play football.”

Despite this notion, Zendejas, who stood at 5 foot, 8 inches, 165lb., made NFL history and went on to play 11 seasons with the NFL, being the first kicker in the league’s history to score 11 consecutive field goals from 50 or more yards.

Likewise, his two cousins, Luis Zendejas (who was 5 feet, 9 inches tall, 175lb.) and Max Zendejas (5 feet, 11 inches tall, 184lb.), also played as kickers in the NFL, while his brother, Marty Zendejas (5 feet, 9 inches, 165lb.), played for the Arena Football League.

When asked about his athletic success despite his physical size, Zendejas explained, “One of the reasons that I was allowed to play was because size didn’t matter in my profession [kicker].”

But if Zendejas’ success in the NFL was due to his small size and the average size of Latino men in the U.S. as recently as 2010 was 5 feet, 7 inches, 186lb., shouldn’t there be more Latino kickers in professional football?

Genetics

Dr. Allan Abbott, Professor of Clinical Family Medicine at the USC Keck School of Medicine, explained several influences of athletic development in children.

Abbott, who specialized in physical endurance and long-distance running prior to retiring from USC in 2016, also posed the question about using the term “Hispanic” and “Latino” as a method to incorrectly categorize people from Latin America when discussing genetic success in sports.

The average height of males in Latin America differ by up to 4 inches. The range in heights alone make it difficult to postulate athletic performance based off height, an easily-identifiable physical trait determined by genetics.

The extensive and intrinsic history of immigration and colonization in and out of Latin America for more than 400 years has created a vast number of ethnic groups within North, Central and South America.

Accordingly, it would be challenging to quantify Latinos genetically without considering the various genetic mixes that have taken place over time. This broad categorization would combine different groups, such as native people and descendants of mestizos, who do not share the same genetic makeup.

This method of categorizing, Abbott explained, serves more as a method for discrimination rather than to determine genetic influence on athletic performance.

Early in his medical career, Abbott spent time studying both the physical activity in the Tarahumara, native people of northwestern Mexico, and the Maasai people of southern Kenya. Both groups are known for their daily long-distance activities and their low to no incidence of heart disease.

Despite their small stature, the Tarahumara regularly covered 20–25 miles per day at fast pace. The Maasai, on the other hand, tend to be much taller and walk long distances daily. Although both groups had contrasting diets, their high level of activity contributed to the lack of heart disease in their ethnic groups. Both groups differed genetically, and yet, are still able to perform high levels of activity daily, resulting in the same health benefits.

Thus, Abbott correlated, “Genetics do not influence a person’s athletic performance as much as the society they belong to. The perceived genetic traits in children, such as height, are often interpreted by parents to choose one activity or sport for their child.”

So, while genetics determine physical characteristics, they do not have a direct influence on physical performance. They influence how those in society see you so that they can guide you to an activity that they think you will perform well in. For example, a boy of smaller stature may be encouraged to do other sports aside from football, since his parents may think he will not reach the larger size of most professional players. This, coupled with the cultural preference for soccer or baseball, could have a direct impact on young Latino athletes being steered away from the football pipeline.

It would not be possible to define which genetics would aid or work against athletic performance given that “Latinos” encompasses various ethnic groups varying in genetics.

Despite the questionable theory of genetic influence on the success of Latinos in football, socio-economic factors are the biggest influencers of success for these athletes. And while the presence of Latinos in football is still small in proportion to our population in the U.S., it is clear that slowly but surely, Latinos are shattering the glass line of scrimmage like they’ve shattered so many other glass ceilings.

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