Will Colorado's Christian McCaffrey Lose the Heisman Because He's White?

Running back Christian McCaffrey, who was born and raised in Colorado and starred for Valor Christian High School before moving on to Stanford, is one of three candidates for college football's Heisman Trophy, along with Alabama running back Derrick Henry and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson.

But even as locals celebrate McCaffrey's achievement, a new talking point has emerged in the run-up to the naming of the Heisman winner.

The question: Is it impossible for McCaffrey to win because he's white?

Probably, ESPN's Michael Wilbon argued yesterday on the network's popular program Pardon the Interruption. And for those who don't already know, Wilbon is African American.

I have a personal connection by association to McCaffrey. He and his brother, Max, attended a Catholic school in the Denver area where my wife worked as an assistant principal. She adored Christian, Max and their parents — former Denver Bronco and current broadcaster Ed McCaffrey and his hilarious wife, Lisa. Among her strongest memories of 9/11 was being approached by one of the boys that day to talk about a more personal issue; the night before, Ed had broken his leg during the first regular season game at what is now known as Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

Both Max and Christian went on to play at Valor Christian, where they were touted as future stars, as seen in the following video:

Max, the older of the two, went on to play wide receiver at Duke, where he's had an outstanding career.

For his part, Christian turned the heads of college scouts with performances like those featured in the following Valor highlights clip.

He's built on his Valor success at Stanford in a huge way, absolutely ripping up the Pac-12 this season.

This weekend, he broke the record for all-purpose yards at the collegiate level set by none other than legendary back Barry Sanders.

Here's a look at some of his Stanford achievements.

Still, McCaffrey is viewed as a long shot to actually take home the trophy, with many observers tilting toward Henry because Alabama had a stronger season than Stanford did.

The Crimson Tide is a favorite to earn the National Championship, while Stanford fell just short of qualifying for the playoffs, likely due to an early season loss to Northwestern (one of my many alma maters).

But during PTI yesterday, Wilbon raised another obstacle for McCaffrey to overcome: skin color.

He pointed out that the last white running back to win the prize was Penn State's John Cappelletti in 1973.

“Stereotypes become deeply held convictions for a great many people,” Wilbon he noted. “To me in order in sports: boxing, and then basketball and then football, these are the places where African-American men, acceptable in some parts in no other place in conventional life, are accepted above all else in those things, boxing, basketball and now football, more quarterback until recently. So now you get a place where this kid is an outsider looking in. The stereotype works against him, even though I would vote for him for Heisman.

“Race is always a factor," Wilbon added, "and [McCaffrey] would’ve received so much more publicity, McCaffrey, who has an incredible family in history of achievement in sports in America, if he wasn’t white.”

Will this argument get traction? Thus far, the largest news agency to highlight Wilbon's words is, a news purveyor that tilts decidedly to the right — a development that raises the prospect that McCaffrey's quest could become a political football.

And we feel confident he'd rather concern himself with the other kind, whether he wins the Heisman or not.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts