Pundits cling to football’s racial tropes

When an English-speaking commentator praises a footballer’s intelligence, there is a 62.60% chance he is referring to a player with a lighter skin; if he mentions power, it is almost seven times more likely he’s talking about a player with a darker skin. This is one of the stark findings of a study into racial bias in football in Europe.

The study by Danish research firm RunRepeat in partnership with the Professional Footballers’ Association, a trade union representing professional sportspeople, analysed 2 073 statements by English-speaking commentators working for British, American and Canadian media outlets. Their comments were made during 80 matches in Europe’s big four men’s leagues (English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Seria A and French Ligue 1) in the 2019-2020 season. 

(John McCann/M&G)

To avoid determining a player’s race themselves, the researchers labelled players as having a lighter skin tone or darker skin tone based on the data in Football Manager 2020, a video game used and maintained by professional scouts around the world. 

They found that the two sets received criticism and praise in equal measure when it came to factual in-game events — applause for a good shot, for example. But based on what a commentator said about a player, the results were remarkably different.

Lighter skin tone players were praised for their mental attributes. They were significantly more likely to receive a positive remark on their intelligence (62.60%), versatility (65.79%), quality (62.79%) and work rate (60.40%). By contrast, darker skin tone players received 63.33% of the criticisms made about intelligence.

When looking at athletic abilities the disparity was even greater. The majority — 86.76% — of positive comments about power were directed at the darker skin tone group and they occupied a 84.17% margin in the speed category. 

Keinan Davis of Aston Villa and John Lundstram of Sheffield United take a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement prior to the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United at Villa Park on June 17, 2020 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

The researchers quoted a 2005 paper by James Rada and Tim Wulfemeyer published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media to emphasise just why these results are concerning: “Portraying African-Americans as naturally athletic or endowed with God-given athleticism exacerbates the stereotype by creating the impression of a lazy athlete, one who does not have to work at his craft … One form of racial bias that researchers have consistently uncovered is the ‘brawn versus brains’ descriptions directed towards players.”

Stalwarts of the South African game who had to battle post-apartheid racial attitudes may also find the research familiar. Even after apartheid fell, in a sport dominated by black players, the all-too-common belief among some English coaches was that you had to have at least one white player in your starting XI lest the team descend into anarchy.

In his 1994 book, Football Against the Enemy, British journalist Simon Kuper quoted Hellenic coach Johnny “Budgie” Byrne as saying: “Blacks will always have that way with them — I’ve never been involved in coaching them — unless you can get them at an early age, like Peter Ndlovu. You have to mix in a couple of white players in the key positions, keeper, centre-back, central midfield, striker, to keep the discipline. At Hellenic, we rely on discipline — we don’t have their skill.”

But the results of the study paint a very different picture to that which English-speaking broadcasters and the returning European leagues are now trying to portray. In every Premier League game since its resumption during the Covid-19 pandemic, teams have taken a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, while all teams have emblazoned the wording on their kits. More often than not, the commentators remark on what a “powerful statement” it is. 

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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