Are There Any Asian Football Players in the NFL?

Leading up to the 2019 NFL Draft, one prospect, Taylor Rapp, challenged people’s unfair misconceptions. As one of the few Asian American NFL draftees — and Asian American pro athletes in general — he received an encouraging message from another Asian American player.

Rapp’s struggle to combat racism does spark some questions. What percentage of the NFL is Asian Americans? And why aren’t there more Asian American football players in pro football?

The racial makeup of the NFL

Here is the racial breakdown of NFL players, according to the Atlas

  • African-American: 69.7%
  • White: 27.4%
  • Asian: 1.9%
  • Latino: 0.8%
  • Other: 0.2%

African-Americans make up the majority of the NFL, with white players coming in second. As you can see, Asians make up a minuscule percentage of the league’s overall makeup. 

Why aren’t there many Asian football players in the NFL? 

In 2017, How Stuff Works examined why more Asian Americans don’t play professional team sports, including NFL football. One possibility is that the emphasis on education in many (not necessarily all) Asian American households may play a role. Both Asian-American athletes and academics sourced an “overwhelming emphasis within Asian-American households on education over athletics.”

Tournament Director of the Asian Basketball Championships of North America, Mike Mon, explained what many Asian Americans hear growing up: “Where’s basketball going to get you? Where’s football going to get you? Your odds of becoming an NBA player are one in a million … There are other ways to succeed in life besides athletics.” Another factor involves negative stereotypes about Asian Americans’ levels of athleticism.

Whatever the reason, Asian Americans are underrepresented in football. In fact, during the 2015-2016 football season, only 115 out of 28,380 college football players were Asian Americans. Since college football is the track to pro football, it stands to reason that the lack of Asian Americans at that level affects the NFL, too.

Notable Asian NFL players

Although there haven’t been many Asian American players compared to other ethnic groups, the NFL has seen some carve out celebrated careers. These players include:

Will Demps

The safety, whose mother is Korean, played for some of the great Baltimore Ravens’ defenses of the early 2000s. Will Demps also played for the New York Giants and Houston Texans. 

John Lee 

Min Long Lee, better known by his American name, John Lee, was a kicker for the Arizona Cardinals in the ’80s. The Cards chose him in the second round of the 1986 NFL Draft. This was a monumental pick not only because kickers are rarely drafted that high, but also because it made Lee the NFL’s first Korean player.

Tedy Bruschi

Known for being an important cog on many of the New England Patriots’ defenses of the 2000s, Tedy Bruschi’s mother is Filipino. 

Hines Ward

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Hines Ward went to the University of Georgia before becoming one of the greatest wide receivers in Pittsburgh Steelers’ history. The player who reached out to Rapp prior to the draft, Ward told him: 

I know you’ve heard it before: ‘Asians can’t play football.’ I still remember the first time I heard it. But I learned something too. Those words can be a gift. You can feed off that energy. Turn that hate into wins. So Asians can’t play football, huh? I’d say we’re pretty darn good.

To start his NFL career, Rapp has played in all of the Los Angeles Rams’ games with 16 tackles thus far. It’s a good start to a career that is a fine example for other Asian American youths.

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