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Groundbreaking Study Reveals Evidence of Racial Bias In Football Commentary

A study conducted by the Danish firm RunRepeat analysed commentary across four of Europe’s top five leagues and found evident bias in the way players with different skin tones were spoken about. The study showed that commentators praised dark skin toned players more on the basis of their strength, power and speed, and less on their intellect, creativity or hard work.
Racial bias and racism in football commentary

(Representative image) The research comes in the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement, at a time when there is intense pressure on sports -- and society -- to racial bias (Pic: Channelnewsasia/twitter).

Racial bias is a huge problem in football commentary according to a new study by the Danish firm RunRepeat. The study which analysed commentary across four European leagues found that players with a lighter skin tone were praised more often for their intelligence and work ethic. Meanwhile, those with darker skin tones were considerably more likely to be reduced to their physical characteristics or athletic ability such as their pace and power.

More than 2,000 statements from commentary on 80 games across the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga and Ligue 1 were analysed.

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In association with the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) the research, conducted by the Danish firm RunRepeat is the first that aims to understand whether the football media is inherently biased towards players dependent on skin colour.

"The continuous praise for players with lighter skin tone for their skill level, leadership and cognitive abilities combined with the continuous criticism for players with darker skin tone is likely to influence the perception of the soccer watching public," a researcher told the BBC. 

PFA equalities executive Jason Lee corroborated the statement saying that "It was always important to collate information rather than just speaking about the fact we believe there is unconscious bias within sport, and across society really.”

"If you're describing two types of players, one is white and one is black, and they are both doing exactly the same thing and yet for the black player you are picking up on the negative side of it and for the white player it's the positive side, what I mean by that is a black player will be perceived as having pace and power and aggression, and a white player will have ingenuity and creativity and determination, different traits, when it could be the reverse."

The research comes at a time when there is intense pressure on sports -- as well as society -- to improve equality of opportunities and to eradicate racial bias. 

“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.”

Research Methodology

The study titled ‘Racial Bias in Football Commentary’ was based on English television commentary that was divided between 80 games during the 2019-20 season. The  games consisted of 20 matches each from the Serie A, Ligue 1, La Liga and the Premier League. 2,074 commentary statements which talked about 643 unique players were analysed.

Only English-language commentary was analysed in order to avoid errors caused by inaccurate translations. The footage was sourced from seven broadcasters: Sky Sports, BT Sport, FreeSports, beIN Sports, TSN, NBCSN and ESPN. The focus was on commentators and co‑commentators who speak as games are happening, and not on studio pundits. About 5% of the commentators and co-commentators were from a BAME background.

Rather than categorise players by race, the research coded players by the colour of their skin, using the database that was available in the 2020 Football Manager video game. Players were given a score from one to 20 according to skin tone and were then ranked as "players with lighter skin tone" or "players with darker skin tone". RunRepeat focused on skin tone because it felt focusing on race would lead to misidentification.

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Comments were categorised on the basis of whether they were positive or negative, and opinions were put into analysis and not in fact, which was further used to determine the control group’s bias.

RunRepeat ratio-adjusted its numbers to account for the fact there were 1,361 comments about lighter-skinned players and 713 about darker-skinned players and found the former group more widely praised for intelligence (62.60%), hard work (60.40%) and quality (62.79%). Commentators are also 6.59 times more likely to talk about the power and strength of a player if he has darker skin and 3.38 times more likely to reference his pace.

The study also found that 63.33% of criticism from commentators in regards to the intelligence of a player is aimed at those with darker skin, while the figure for quality is 67.57%.

But the researchers found that "differences are most stark when commentators are discussing physical characteristics/athletic abilities".

“Commentators help shape the perception we hold,” said Lee, a former Nottingham Forest, Charlton and Watford forward. “It’s important to consider how far-reaching those perceptions can be and how they impact footballers once they finish their playing career.”

"I think it's damaging in the long term because when players leave their playing career and they go into coaching or managing, or want to be seen in a more positive light, people will have already built up this perception because for 10 or 20 years all you've heard of is that person is quick, powerful and aggressive, and you've not heard they are actually intellectual, articulate and [have] a quite different set of skills."

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