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Growing up, Michael Davis rarely watched the NFL.
As a child in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale in a single-parent household, he held two loves: his mother, Ana Martínez from Mexico City, and soccer.
He first visited his family in Mexico when he was 5, slashing through any open patch of dirt of with his cousins, a soccer ball clinging to his feet. His dream then: to play portero – goalkeeper – for the Mexican national team.
The few times Davis did tune in on Sundays, he noticed a couple trends. He didn’t see many players who looked like his family, and the ones who did seemed relegated to a few positions.
“Growing up, I watched and thought: ‘Oh, I guess if you’re Hispanic, all you could do was kick the ball or play offensive line,’ ” Davis told USA TODAY Sports. “I didn’t think you could play DB or quarterback or anything else.”
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Davis, in the years since, has broken that mold. He is a cornerback for the Los Angeles Chargers.
The rate of Hispanic representation within the NFL, however, especially among players and coaches, remains far lower than the ethnic breakdown of the United States population.
According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), which publishes annual report cards on racial and gender hiring, only eight of the 1,657 players (0.5%) for which there is data in 2019 were Hispanic or Latino.
That was down from 18 of 2,257 (0.8%) in 2016.
This all comes despite a steady surge of Hispanic fandom over the last decade. There was an all-time high 30.2 million Hispanic NFL fans living in the U.S. in 2019, up 5% from the previous year, according to the SSRS/Luker on Trends Sports Poll. That growth can be traced to initiatives, strategic business campaigns and grassroots programs the league has implemented in recent years.
With National Hispanic Heritage Month ending Thursday, USA TODAY Sports spoke to several current and former players and coaches to pose the question: Despite a swelling fan base, why is Hispanic representation in the league so minuscule?
Among the possible answers, one in particular, prevailed.
Davis, whose father is Black, identifies himself primarily as Mexican. On his verified Instagram page, he honors his roots from the Mexican state of Michoacán. On his right thigh, he has the faces of Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and revolutionary Emiliano Zapata etched in ink. On his right forearm, he has an Aztec warrior.
His mother forbade contact sports when he was a child, so he played flag football and, eventually, ran track. His first dose of tackle football came his freshman year of high school, where his speed separated him from everyone else.
“In my experience, a lot of Hispanic kids played it and thought, ‘Yeah, this is fun,’ but they didn’t see anything for them past that,” Davis said. “If the Hispanic people want to see a change and want to see more players in the NFL, they gotta come out and want it. You can’t just hope. You can’t just sit back and say, ‘I wish we’d have more Hispanic players’ and do nothing about it. It’s going to take more than that. And it all starts from an early age, with just coming out and giving it a shot.”
Two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Alejandro Villanueva of the Steelers was born on a Naval Air Station in Meridian, Mississippi, to Spanish parents. He swam and played soccer and estimates that, to this day, he has played more soccer than football.
Rugby was his first love, even playing for the Spanish national team. But when he realized the sport wasn’t offered on the base where his family was stationed after they moved to Belgium, he found the next closest thing.
“Football allowed me to learn the American culture,” Villanueva told USA TODAY Sports. “It was a great way for me to make friends and learn the language because I didn’t speak English at all.”
New York Giants left guard Will Hernandez was born into soccer. His father, Robert, played it professionally in Mexico.
But like so many Central American families seeking a better life, the Hernandezes moved north. And as Will grew interested in sports in Las Vegas, he played what his father played.
One day, Hernandez saw a football practice, the orchestrated movement, the collisions. But more than anything, he saw body types like his own. Currently 6-foot-2 and 327 pounds – which is actually 21 pounds lighter than his draft weight – Hernandez tried out.
“There’s everything you need to play this game, learning the playbook, techniques and all of that, but the base fundamentals that you need for this game – toughness, aggressiveness, willingness – the Hispanic and Latino community, that’s us,” Hernandez told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s what’s in our blood. We are all those things. The Hispanic community has a lot of players who can play in this league, definitely. It’s all just a matter of exposing our best athletes to the sport at a young age.”
While early exposure was the clear consensus to explain low representation, numerous players and coaches also cited a secondary, more controversial answer as another potential factor. And while it may be backed by some studies, Dr. Richard Lapchick, the director of TIDES in the DeVos Sports Management Program at UCF, characterized references to body types and genetics as problematic..
The National Center for Health Statistics published a 2018 study showing that, on average, Hispanic men were shorter and weighed less than non-Hispanic white and Black men, based on survey responses. The data show that in 2015-16, Hispanic men aged 20 years and older weighed an average of 190.5 pounds, compared to non-Hispanic white men (202.2) and Black men (197.7) of the same age group.
Over the same span and survey sample, the results held for height, too. On average, Hispanic men (66.7 inches) aged 20 and older trailed non-Hispanic white men (69.8) and non-Hispanic Black men (69.1).
“I personally would stay away from those arguments,” Lapchick said. “Because, one, there’s no way to prove them, and, two, they just raise a whole lot of racially-charged biases. I think it comes down to this: If you’re a young, Hispanic kid in America and you’re trying to decide what sport you want to play, you look around and see role models who look like you, they probably aren’t going to be in football.”
The ‘buddy system’
Tom Flores, still the only Hispanic coach to have ever won a Super Bowl, was the first starting quarterback in the history of the Raiders franchise, in 1960, when the team was in the AFL.
He spent six seasons with the team and became the first Hispanic starting quarterback in professional football history.
Flores, whose parents were migrant farmers in Fresno, lived in a small home with no running water. His crib was a grape box. But it was his relationship with former Raiders owner Al Davis, developed over his years as a player, that put him in a position to set the standard in the NFL for Hispanic representation.
“Al treated me just like he treated anybody else,” Flores told USA TODAY Sports. “There was no favoritism. There was no racial bias. But there just weren’t a lot of Hispanic men playing or coaching at that level back then. It’s kind of like what Black assistant coaches deal with. Around 70% of the league is Black, and it’s still hard for qualified Black coaches to get hired. It’s a very slow progression. It’s a buddy system.”
According to the TIDES report, Hispanic or Latino assistant coaches represented just 1% of respondents last year, down from 1.7% in 2018. In head coaching positions, there are two Hispanics among the league’s 32 teams.
And in the history of the NFL, it is believed that there has been only one Hispanic general manager or director of player personnel.
The one to break that barrier was Flores, in 1989 with the Seattle Seahawks.
Ron Rivera of the Washington Football Team, one the two Hispanic head coaches in the NFL, still regards Flores as the paradigm and sees similarities from his own rise to the one of the Hall of Fame finalist for the Class of 2021.
Rivera, whose father is Puerto Rican and whose mother is Mexican-American, played linebacker for nine seasons for the Bears and was a key figure in the historic 1985 defense that secured a championship in Super Bowl XX. He later joined the Bears coaching staff in 1997 as a defensive quality control assistant.
“Unfortunately, Hispanic and Latino coaches may have to work twice as hard,” Rivera told USA TODAY Sports. “But when you do get the opportunity, you’ve got to keep it and make it work for you.”
Rivera pointed to the Bill Walsh Diversity Fellowship, a program that helps recruit minority and diverse assistants to participate in training camps as a tool to break in.
The league also has the Rooney Rule, which has come under criticism but aims to increase external minority interviews for head coaching and other senior positions.
But exposure – or lack of it – may fulfill a self-perpetuating cycle for Hispanic coaches. Since playing experience is such a seamless path toward NFL front offices, lower levels of Hispanic representation on the field may also be linked to lower Hispanic representation in coaching.
“We as a community, I think, don’t do enough to promote ourselves,” Rivera continued. “I would love to see a little bit more of that. Unless you really dig around, you really don’t find a lot about Hispanic people in football, let alone the NFL. It’s a shame, because we represent such a huge population inside the United States as a fan base.”
The next wave
According to the NFL, there are more than 22 million NFL fans in Mexico, including more than 7 million avid fans. There are more than 40 million fans in Latin America, overall. The league is the second-most popular sporting franchise in the region, behind Liga MX, the top professional soccer league in Mexico. And about a third of the league’s Hispanic fans in Latin America are younger than 25.
Every year since 2016, an NFL International Series game has been scheduled in Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, a game that draws ratings in the country similar to the Super Bowl. NFL International amended its agreement to honor the game scrapped in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and has plans for games in Mexico City in 2021 and 2022.
The league has invested in a flag football program in Mexico that includes a partnership with schools to make it part of the physical education program. The league estimates that 5 million boys and girls played during the 2019-20 school year.
“We look at the game as a developmental pyramid, and at the base is flag football,” NFL International chief operating officer Damani Leech said. “That’s just getting footballs in the hands of boys and girls, increasing their familiarity with the sport. Our research says if you’ve played the game, you’re much more likely to be a fan of the sport.”
At the top of that pyramid is the NFL’s International Pathway Program. Now in its fourth season, it allows some teams to carry an international player on their practice squad. The 2020 season marked the first that saw a Mexican player allocated to a team.
Offensive lineman Isaac Alarcón played college football for the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey.
After Alarcón was allocated to the Cowboys, NFL International closely followed the reaction. His Instagram followers grew 800% as the Mexican and Hispanic fans of the Cowboys saw one of their own wearing the iconic star on his helmet. It led NFL International to work with the Organización Nacional Estudiantil de Fútbol Americano, the major college football league in Mexico, to strengthen ties and increase player identification opportunities.
“We’re working on developing those plans now,” Leech said. “The reception from fans on both sides of the border has just been tremendous.”
While these initiatives could eventually produce gains, tangible progress may still be several years away. Current players and coaches insist there’s short-term work to be done domestically. The first step, Davis said, should be for teammates to seek out Hispanic players to engage in meaningful conversations that address the paths and obstacles they face.
“My teammates do know what Mexicans look like, how they speak and all that,” Davis said. “But it’s important for them to know who I am as a person, who Michael Davis is and what he represents, what his culture represents, the issues he has to face every day, the values that are important to him.”
Both Davis and Villanueva said they weren’t in favor of any intervention to cater to any specific group to increase representation. Rather, players recommended investing in grassroots campaigns in communities with strong Hispanic ties in the U.S. to educate children on the values of all sports, not only football.
“I think America is more of an idea,” Villanueva said. “Americans are those who share that idea. You can bring in your background, your ethnicity, your culture. You can bring it into this country and be one more – as long as you hold those American ideals. The Hispanic population in this country has embraced these values.
“Football represents a lot of those values – individualism, toughness, perseverance. Once Hispanic people start embracing the game a little more, I think it’s only a matter of time before we see more Villanuevas on the backs of jerseys.”
Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes