Opinion: Cooper Kupp is known more as white receiver than wide receiver despite record-setting season

Mike Freeman

They were both at the 2017 scouting combine in Indianapolis and years later would become two of the biggest stars in the NFL.

The first player ran a 4.56 40-yard dash, benched 225 pounds 14 times, had a 39.5-inch vertical jump, broad jumped 123 inches, had a 6.82 three-cone drill, and a 4.3 second 20-yard shuttle. He was measured at 6-1, 212 pounds.

NFL.com wrote this about the player: "A long-limbed, sure-handed possession receiver with starter-caliber, positional traits. Lacks top-end speed and strength. As a 21-year-old, third-year sophomore entering the draft early, is still growing into his body and developing core strength. A poor man's Michael Crabtree ... possesses very intriguing upside to be groomed."

Sure-handed possession receiver ... lacks top-end speed and strength.

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The second player at the same combine ran a 4.62, didn't do the bench press, had a 31-inch vertical jump, broad jumped 116 inches, had a 6.75 three-cone drill, and did 20-yard shuttle in 4.08. He was measured at 6-2, 204 pounds.

Part of the NFL.com evaluation read: "His transition to NFL-level cornerbacks will take time, but he has the ability to become an early No. 3 receiver and eventual starter."

Transition to NFL-level cornerbacks will take time.

In many ways, the players are very similar. There isn't a huge chasm when it comes to speed, the first player jumped higher, while the second is slightly taller and quicker. Scouts had questions about the speed of both.

The first player is Davante Adams.

The second player is Cooper Kupp.

Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp runs with the ball after making a catch against the Baltimore Ravens. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Now, years after that combine, Adams is viewed by many in the league and the news media as a fast, explosive player who is one of the best physical talents in the NFL. Kupp is seen as a shifty, clever player who lacks speed, and gets open through craftiness.

In many ways, Kupp's story this season isn't just about the fact he's one of the best players in football. It's also about how his whiteness has shaped perceptions of him and how those views are based on stereotypes.

If there is one major commonality in the news media whenever there's a discussion of Kupp, it's this: he's often compared exclusively to other white receivers.

Or, his speed and athleticism are downplayed, despite the fact he displays absurd amounts of both. Meanwhile, his work ethic, smarts and route running skills are treated as the keys to his record-breaking success despite the fact, like most great receivers, athleticism and precision routes coagulate into one fluid force.

In much of today's media world, on the football shows and opinion ones, white receivers look alike and run alike. To these media personalities, Kupp's specialness is shocking, because few apparently believe it's possible that a white receiver can dominate a majority-Black sport.

"I view Cooper Kupp like I looked at Julian Edelman, liked I looked at Wes Welker," said Shannon Sharpe, the Hall of Fame tight end, on the Fox Sports show "Undisputed."

"Guys playing unbelievable out of the slot," he said on the show, "putting up tremendous numbers, and are ideal for that system."

Sharpe, who co-hosts with Skip Bayless, added he wasn't attempting to disparage Kupp who he called "fundamentally and technically sound."

"Now I'm going to deal with that white elephant in the room," said longtime journalist Bayless on the show. "Cause you know, and I know, we didn't see this coming."

Sharpe, in discussing Kupp, mentioned white receivers Welker, Danny Amendola and Cole Beasley. Bayless mentioned former Packers receiver Jordy Nelson.

"That white kid can play," Bayless said.

Sharpe and Bayless are far from the only broadcasters to have this type of discussion. (Note: For the record, I really like Sharpe and Bayless both as broadcasters and people. End note.) In fact, this type of talk around Kupp has been ongoing for months and across all platforms from television to radio to social media.

ESPN's Mike Greenberg on the show "Get Up" had one of the more strange Kupp takes, saying, "It's hard to say the best receiver in the NFL is someone whose name is Cooper Kupp."

Pat McAfee also compared Kupp to Edelman. He agreed with something often expressed about Kupp that says Kupp is "like another quarterback on the field." (I'm not including the video because of several F-bombs.)

These are just a handful of examples. There are many more.

In fact, Kupp isn't the only receiver to face this type of talk. Las Vegas Raiders receiver Hunter Renfrow is also often described the way Kupp is on social media.

There are a few analysts and broadcasters who see Kupp as speedy. Former Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms was one who recognized that Kupp is indeed fast.

"People I think disrespect his speed," said Simms on Pro Football Talk. "'Not the fastest guy' is what I always hear on the pregame (shows). ... How many times does he have to run for a 50-yard touchdown or 60-yard touchdown before we say he's fast?"

In fact, Kupp, according to Next Gen Stats, has one of the fastest times this season. He hit 20.07 mph during a 43-yard catch against the Colts in Week 2. That run was one of the top 20 fastest for that week.

Despite displaying impressive speed, Simms is mostly alone saying Kupp is fast. Throughout many of the discussions of Kupp, there's a sense of shock that a white player is so good, and an almost refusal to believe that he's fast and athletic.

Adams would go on to improve his speed and shed the possession receiver label he got at the combine. However, Kupp got faster as well, but that's rarely reflected in talk about him, while it is with Adams.

These descriptions of Kupp have been a constant in the news media for several years, but grew in number significantly this year as Kupp has composed one of the most epic seasons for a receiver in league history. His 145 catches and 1,947 receiving yards are both the second most in a single season in league history. 

Kupp is the NFL’s first triple-crown receiver (leading the league in receptions, yards, and touchdowns) since Steve Smith in 2005.

As Kupp has elevated his play into a rare place, it's almost as if the brains of people can't compute that a white receiver is dominating a sport that's approximately 70% Black. So they fall back on stereotypes.

Why is all of this important? Stereotypes are the nuclear fission of hate and racism. Even in small doses, they are problematic.

There's also the problem of the reverse stereotype. If a white player is praised as crafty and hardworking, that can mean Black players are successful strictly because of physical prowess. Their craftiness is diminished. 

Kupp's 4.62 40-yard dash at the combine is also constantly discussed in the media. It's often used to justify views that Kupp is slow and dominates because of grit and route running.

But what's clear is that Kupp is fast. Really fast. It's not that Kupp is good solely because of route running; it's also outrunning, as in outrunning defenders chasing him.

In the end, Kupp is good because like other receivers of his caliber, he's fast and athletic.

Just like Davante Adams.