Football commentary has evidence of racial bias, groundbreaking study finds

Commentators are six times more likely to be describing a player of ‘darker skin tone’ when talking about power while ‘lighter skin tone players’ are regularly praised for their intelligence and work ethic

Jack de Menezes
Sports News Correspondent
Tuesday 30 June 2020 12:27
Raheem Sterling says racism is 'the only disease in the world right now'

Football commentators are six times more likely to be talking about players with darker skin when discussing how powerful they are, according to a groundbreaking study into racial bias.

The result of the study, completed by Danish research company RunRepeat in association with the Professional Footballers’ Association and the largest of its kind in the English language, reveals clear evidence of systemic bias within football commentary as a time when the treatment of black, Asian and minority ethnic (Bame) communities is under the microscope.

Eighty matches from Europe’s top four leagues – the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga and Ligue 1 – were analysed from the 2019/20 season, with a variety of broadcasters represented across the UK, United States and Canada including Sky Sports, BT Sport, NBC, BeinSport, ESPN and Turner Sports.

It revealed genuine cause for concern that the opinions expressed by the sport’s leading commentators regarding Bame players are vulnerable to racial bias, regardless of intention, with aspects of pace, power and work-rate viewed differently when compared to similar assessments of lighter skin tone players.

Focussing on different 15-minute segments surrounding 643 individual players of various race and skin tones, it was found that commentators are 6.59 times more likely to be talking about darker skin tone players when mentioning power, and 3.38 times more likely when discussing speed. The presence of bias meant that 86.76 per cent of all positive comments about power were aimed at darker skin tone players, with 84.17 per cent for speed.

The study also found that commentators are 60.4 per cent more likely to be describing a player with lighter skin tone when talking about work ethic, with 62.6 per cent of all intelligence praise going to the same group of players. In comparison, 63.33 per cent of intelligence criticism was aimed at darker skin tone players.

Two-thirds of all comments regarding the quality of play were also about lighter skin tone players, with 67.57 per cent of negative comments about darker skin tone players.

While commentators may be completely unaware of the differences in how they describe players by the colour of their skin, the impact of such bias is considerable. Danny McLoughlin, research director at RunRepeat and the lead researcher on the study, believes that commentary is “a prism for everyone who watches football” that influences many aspects of life, from conversations between friends to the potential earnings and contracts that players are able to commission. If a player is labelled as work-shy or lacking in intelligence through match commentary, it can have major repercussions for that player further down the line.

The PFA equalities executive Jason Lee has asked broadcasters and commentators to increase their efforts in addressing racial bias, and called on them to offer unconscious bias training to raise awareness of how the use of their language can convey and reinforce stereotypical racially-motivated views.

Premier League broadcasters were among those included in the study

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

“Commentators help shape the perception we hold of each player, deepening any racial bias already held by the viewer.

“If you haven’t got people to bounce ideas off and to listen to what’s being said, and you haven’t got an open ear, how are you going to understand that what you’re doing is offending people if nobody is there challenging you and telling you, ‘That’s not right.’

 You can’t always say that a black athlete is going to be quick and is going to be strong

Jason Lee, PFA equalities executive

A follow-up study has been planned to look at the issue of ‘stacking’, which was common in American football where influential thinking positions such as quarterback went to white players, with athletic-dependent positions such as running back and wide receiver were allocated more to black players.

The same can be said in football where the role of captain is predominantly handed to white players, as are ‘creative’ or ‘thinking’ positions such as attacking midfielders, centre-backs and goalkeepers, while darker skin tone players regularly fill positions where athletic ability is an advantage.

Of the 80 clubs involved in the study, just 15 of them currently have a Bame captain – 10 of which are in Ligue 1 with five in the Premier League, one in Serie A and not a single Bame captain in La Liga.

The use of language allows racial bias to influence the viewer

“When you’re playing football and someone is painting the picture that you’re powerful, you’re quick, you’re aggressive – I mean they’re great traits to have, but you’re not saying ‘industrious, intelligent, creative’, you’re not using that terminology,” Lee added.

“Already it’s living up to that stereotype of black athletes – you can’t always say that a black athlete is going to be quick and is going to be strong.

“If you keep stigmatising people and saying this, that and the other, how is that athlete going to go from the training and playing field and be taken seriously as maybe a coach, a manager or another position of power?”

To provide a control category, ‘in-game events’ that were based purely on factual statements – rather than opinionated comment – were also recorded, with criticism split 50-50 across the two skin tones and praise slightly in favour of lighter skin tone players. Yet when opinionated comment was recorded, there was clear evidence that racial bias is present in the statements made.


Number of Bame captains across four of Europe’s top leagues

Because 1,361 of the total 2,073 comments were made towards lighter skin tone players, a multiplier of 1.9 to give a total of 1,362 in order for the two to be fairly compared.

Researchers also used the 20 skin tones as marked out by Football Manager 2020, given it sets a predetermined class that removes any interpretation of a players ethnicity or race and judges the comments on skin colour alone. Classes 1-11 were classified as ‘lighter skin tone’, with the remaining 12-20 making up the players with ‘darker skin tone’. With the total sample size of 643 players, 433 were classified as ‘players with lighter skin tone’ and 210 were classified as ‘players with darker skin tone’.

The report states: “Players have been unified in their support of the Black Lives Matter movement, sending a strong message about equality.

“However, the players themselves still have to navigate systemically racist structures, despite their significant platforms and professional success. This racial bias study makes the nuances of that structure apparent.

“We now need everyone in football, including commentators and broadcasters, to consider the part they play in furthering implicit bias towards people with darker skin tones.”

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