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The NFL might have a growing poverty problem

For many athletes, sports are an escape from the daily grind. The freedom of sports is often the perfect panacea to the workplace or classroom. However, for some aspiring professional athletes, sports can represent much more than just an escape from the 9 to 5 — it can serve as a way out of the harsh reality of poverty. It is unclear how much escaping poverty motivates young men to pursue a career in the NFL, but what is clear from an analysis of US Census data is that over time, more of the NFL is being represented by players who were born into counties that had poverty rates higher than the national average.

US Census data

To get an idea about the proportion of NFL players born into poverty, we first tallied the counties and years in which every NFL player was born. We then used the nearest decennial report from the US Census Bureau for each player to find their home county’s percentage of people living below poverty. For example, players born between 1975 and 1984 were matched with their home county’s poverty percentage in the 1980 decennial report, and compared to the national average at that time.

The percentage of NFL players from counties with poverty rates higher than the national average has steadily increased with each decennial class of players. Of all NFL players represented by the 1990 decennial report (born between 1985 and 1994), over half (54.4%) were more than likely1 born in a county where the percentage of the population living below the poverty level was higher than the national average2 (Figure 1).

How bad is it?

The average percent of the population living below poverty nationwide took a major drop after 1960, but has since plateaued; it has hovered around 13% for 30 years. The proportion of people living in poverty in NFL players’ home counties has followed a similar pattern — even though a greater

proportion of NFL players come from counties with higher than average poverty rates, the overall level of poverty in those players’ home counties has dropped over time (Figure 2).

What does it mean?

The message here is not that being born into a poverty-stricken county ensures that a budding pop warner football star will become an NFL rags-to-riches story. Indeed, the percentage of people living below poverty from a player’s home county does not necessarily indicate that any specific player was born into poverty. But, even with these caveats, these findings empirically support previous anecdotal evidence suggesting that players from poverty-stricken areas may be overrepresented in the NFL. We don’t know the motivations for every NFL player, but one piece of the puzzle could be that football remains a potential ticket out of poverty3.

1 Theoretically, the percentage both within the county as well as the national average could have fluctuated between the decennial reports. Thus, if a player was not born on a decennial year, their county as well as the national average could have been different.  

2 These are indirect measures of a player’s home county from the closest decennial year to their birth, not direct measures from their actual birth year. However, besides the drop from 1960 to 1970, there has been very little change in the national average, and thus, we wouldn’t expect much change year to year, county to county.

3 These are not direct measures of the socioeconomic status of any particular player’s family. These percentages do, however, indicate a county’s overall economic health during the time period of a player’s birth, and they should be a reasonable representation of the economic conditions from which a player hails.

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