Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 15 July 2020

Football commentators express racial bias, research finds

Lighter-skinned players more likely to be described as intelligent and hard-working than darker-skinned athletes

Research backed by the English and Welsh football unions has found that commentators were more likely to praise white footballers as intelligent, harder-working and of higher quality than players with darker skin tones.

Commentators were also more likely to describe players with darker skin tones on the basis of their athletic ability or physical build – such as their pace or power – as opposed to those with fairer complexions.

The research, described as the first to try to understand how commentators talk about players based on their skin tone, assessed footage from four of Europe’s top leagues – Serie A, La Liga, Ligue 1 and the Premier League – broadcast by UK, American and Canadian media outlets.

About 80 games from the 2019/20 season and 2,074 statements were reviewed by RunRepeat, better known as a reviewer of sporting goods, in conjunction with the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA).

Overall, when commentators spoke about intelligence, 62.60 per cent of praise was directed at lighter skinned people while 63.33 per cent of criticism was spoken about players of a darker skin tone. With work ethic, 60.40 per cent of positive comments were directed at players with a lighter skin tone.

When it came to physicality and power, commentators were 6.59 times more likely to address it when discussing darker-skinned players and 3.38 times more likely when it came to mentioning speed.

The findings were released as players have come together to back the Black Lives Matter movement, use their public platform to denounce racism and call for change. They have also spoken out about how discrimination remains prevalent in sport, whether professional or amateur.

Raheem Sterling of Manchester City takes a knee ahead of the English FA Cup quarter final match between Newcastle United and Manchester City. Shaun Botterill/NMC
Raheem Sterling of Manchester City takes a knee ahead of the English FA Cup quarter final match between Newcastle United and Manchester City. Shaun Botterill/NMC

Jason Lee, the PFA equalities executive, said it was crucial that perceptions be changed.

“To address the real impact of structural racism we have to acknowledge and address racial bias. This study shows an evident bias in how we describe the attributes of footballers based on their skin colour,” he said.

“Commentators help shape the perception we hold of each player, deepening any racial bias already held by the viewer. It’s important to consider how far-reaching those perceptions can be and how they impact footballers even once they finish their playing career.

“If a player has aspirations of becoming a coach/manager, is an unfair advantage given to players who commentators regularly refer to as intelligent and industrious, when those views appear to be a result of racial bias?” he added.

Commentators may not have meant to “further racial stereotypes”, RunRepeat said, but it added that sharing the narrative that athleticism is black players’ primary value helped entrench ideas that society is currently trying to eradicate.

“While this type of unconscious prejudice has become less overt, even subtle racial bias is damaging, continues a legacy of pain and has long-reaching societal consequences.”

Updated: June 30, 2020 11:25 PM

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