Baseball is America’s national pastime, but the use of racially coded language when referring to players is not a phenomenon that’s specific only to baseball. Certainly, if you’ve heard about an NFL cornerback with “deceptive speed” or an NBA guard with “outstanding leadership qualities,” you can make as good a guess to their skin color — just as if you heard about an NFL quarterback who’s “not a traditional pocket passer” or an NBA forward who “can power his way through the paint.”
But it’s not just that this practice extends beyond baseball. It extends outside of North America, as well.
A recent study by RunRepeat, in conjunction with the Professional Footballers’ Association, has revealed that just by watching a European soccer game on television, fans are exposed to a striking amount of racial bias.
The study of 2,073 comments made about 643 individual players was drawn from top-flight English, French, Italian, and Spanish league games broadcast to the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada. Rather than try to assign race identities themselves — a tricky proposition, as Ian Desmond might attest — researchers used the skin tone attributes from the meticulously curated video game Football Manager 2020.
It’s not exactly surprising, given the way African teams get talked about at the World Cup, and knowing that racism remains an issue in all four European leagues covered by the study. But it’s important to be able to have hard data, and not just anecdotal evidence, to back up the idea that change needs to happen.
Among the data in the study: 63 percent of praise about intelligence and 63 percent of criticism about a lack of intelligence was given to players with lighter and darker skin tones, respectively. The old “pace and power” cliche for darker-skinned players is indeed a real thing, as players with darker skin tones were more than three times as likely to have their speed referenced in commentary, and more than six times as likely to have commentators talk about their power. Meanwhile, 60 percent of the praise for work ethic was heaped upon lighter-skinned players.
Here’s a closer look at the report’s findings:
- When commentators talk about intelligence:
- 62.60% of praise was aimed at players with lighter skin tone
- 63.33% of criticism was aimed at players with darker skin tone
- When commentators are talking about power they are 6.59 times more likely to be talking about a player with darker skin tone
- When commentators are talking about speed they are 3.38 times more likely to be talking about a player with darker skin tone
- When commentators talk about work ethic, 60.40% of praise is aimed at players with lighter skin tone
In a statement about the study, PFA Equalities Executive Jason Lee 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 that commentators regularly refer to as intelligent and industrious, when those views appear to be a result of racial bias?”
It certainly would appear so. Among those four leagues, there is only one Black manager: Patrick Vieira at Nice in Ligue 1. There were two Black managers in the Premier League at the end of the 2017-18 season, but Chris Hughton was sacked at Brighton & Hove Albion after last season, while Darren Moore, who saw West Brom through relegation, got the boot in March 2019 — he’s since moved on to Doncaster Rovers in League One, the third tier of English soccer.
This study will not result in a sudden change in hiring practices in leagues where many teams never have had a Black manager. It’s about applying real data to an issue that has been too easily brushed off for years, and fostering real change in the culture. That will take time in Europe, as it takes time in North America. There still is work to be done to build an anti-racist foundation for sports going forward, but what we’re seeing now, finally, is groundbreaking.