Black Quarterbacks Take Hits in the Media as Well as on the Field

January 3, 2012

Media portrayals of leadership differ depending on race

DURHAM, N.C. - Two black college quarterbacks, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III, won the last two Heisman Trophy Awards. Nevertheless, black college quarterbacks are not viewed as positively as white quarterbacks for their leadership on the football field, according to research published in the December 2011 issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

Professors Andrew Carton from Pennsylvania State University's Smeal College of Business and Ashleigh Shelby Rosette from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business analyzed online news reports on college football to provide a new perspective on the persistence of negative evaluations of black leaders. The researchers found that when their teams win, black quarterbacks are lauded in the media for their athleticism rather than for great leadership. When their teams lose, black quarterbacks are depicted in the media as incompetent and lacking in general leadership skills.

"The stereotype that black athletes are not intellectually equal to their white counterparts clashes with typical positive leadership characteristics," said Rosette. "Yet people are motivated to view successful leaders in a positive light. To reconcile this contradiction, black quarterbacks are viewed as great athletes instead of great leaders when their teams win. But when they lose, people focus on their lack of leadership instead of their athleticism; black quarterbacks are seen as bad leaders, not bad athletes."

For example, one black quarterback in the study was described by the media as successful because he "had the speed to get away," not because he was competent. Another black quarterback was described as unsuccessful because he was inferior in "making decisions under pressure," not because he lacked athleticism, the researchers report in their study.

"These findings add to a new wave of research that suggests stereotypes are not rigid beliefs, but instead can be applied in a flexible way according to the situation," said Carton. "People only use negative stereotypes of black leaders to explain negative outcomes. They then focus on traits that are less relevant to leadership, such as athleticism, to explain positive outcomes."

Rosette's previous research has found that in a business context, people judge white leaders to be more effective than black leaders who had achieved the same level of success. Football provided an ideal context to extend her earlier findings because quarterbacks are recognized as one of the most important leadership positions in sports.

"It's important to note that we don't suggest the bias against black quarterbacks is perpetrated deliberately or even consciously," said Rosette. "However, we do argue that despite the advancement and progress of blacks in many domains, subtle negative stereotypes linger and can taint the manner in which blacks in leadership positions are evaluated." 

The researchers reviewed more than 600 online news articles about Division I quarterbacks who played during the Fall 2007 football season. There were 124 black and 328 white quarterbacks who played for 119 teams. Carton and Rosette trained coders to classify phrases used by media writers as well as coaches and players who were quoted in news articles.

The number of adjectives used to describe blacks as athletic was more than five times greater when their teams won than when their teams lost. The number of adjectives used to describe blacks as incompetent leaders was more than three times greater when their teams lost than when their teams won.

This pattern was not found for white quarterbacks, who were described in terms of leadership competence and athleticism in the same way after wins and losses. The researchers found these effects even after accounting for the actual physical performance of quarterbacks (including passing and rushing statistics).

"Our research suggests the flexibility with which people use stereotypes prevents blacks from being viewed as strong leaders," Carton said. "In addition to the conventional thinking that managers should scrutinize hiring and promotion policies for racial bias, these findings suggest that managers have to question if there is a difference in how black and white leaders are evaluated once they have already become leaders. Putting people in position to succeed is meaningless if they won't be given credit for their success."

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