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8 July 2020updated 29 Jul 2021 8:37am

A new study finds evidence of racial bias in football commentary. We cannot ignore it any longer

White players are hailed for their courage and commitment, while black players are more likely to be criticised for a bad attitude, and reduced to their pace and strength.   

By Jonathan Liew

There is a famous sketch by the comedy duo Key and Peele in which a white television pundit is enthusiastically comparing various American football players. While Tom Brady is praised as “the hardest-working, most intelligent player in the game”, Richard Sherman is described as “one of the most physically gifted creatures to ever grace the sport”.

Max Unger? “Keenly analytical.” 

Vince Wilfork? “A true freak of nature.” 

Luke Willson? “Cerebral.” 

Marshawn Lynch? “Specimen.” 

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Naturally enough, the players being praised for their brains are all white; the players being lauded for their physical attributes all black. 

The sketch neatly encapsulates what keen-eared followers of sport have implicitly grasped for a while. While Roger Federer (20 Grand Slam singles titles) is invariably a “genius”, Serena Williams (23 Grand Slams) is simply a “phenomenal athlete”. While Mark Wood – a 95mph England fast bowler – is described as “hard-working”, Jofra Archer – a 95mph England fast bowler – is “effortless” or “laid-back”. While white footballers are hailed for their courage and commitment, black footballers are far more likely to be criticised for a bad attitude, and reduced to their pace and strength. 

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For years, we knew this to be true. We just couldn’t prove it. We knew that when pundits described Paul Pogba as “lazy” or lauded Yaya Touré – one of the finest technical midfielders ever seen in English football – as a “powerhouse”, it was at best evidence of careless predisposition and at worst a sinister form of coded racism. While there have been academic studies into how commentators in the United States unconsciously discriminate between white and black athletes in sports like basketball and American football, evidence of a similar phenomenon in European football has largely been anecdotal, and thus easily refuted. Until now. 

Last month, research by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) – in partnership with RunRepeat – analysed 2,000 statements made by commentators during 80 top-flight football matches, and discovered clear evidence of racial bias. Lighter-skinned players were more likely to be praised for their intelligence, work ethic and leadership. Darker-skinned players were more likely to be criticised along the same lines, and seven times more likely to be described in terms of their power.

This has repercussions beyond semantics or political correctness. Disproportionately portraying non-white players in these terms is clearly more likely to render them a target of abuse. Romelu Lukaku, the Inter Milan striker who has been serially assaulted with monkey chants since moving to Italy (at least, while fans were still allowed in stadiums), has wondered aloud whether the abuse he attracts is partly rooted in the “pace and power element”: the tendency to emphasise his physical gifts instead of his skills and the hard work required to hone them. This is not a uniquely Italian problem: when Lukaku was at Manchester United, fans would serenade him with a chant that made reference to the size of his penis.

Then there are the financial consequences. While only around two-thirds of professional footballers in England are white, they are over-represented elsewhere in the jobs that footballers might be expected to occupy after retirement: coaching, administration, media. White people make up 93 per cent of professional managers and 94 per cent of people in leadership roles at the Football Association. Unsurprisingly, 94 per cent of the commentators analysed in the PFA study were also white. Could this be because for decades, the language of football has reduced black achievement to a function of physical attributes, in the process stigmatising black players as unsuitable leaders and communicators?

“Commentators help shape the perception we hold,” said Jason Lee of the PFA. “If a player has aspirations of becoming a coach, 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?” 

Partly, these are cultural flaws. Responding to the PFA research, the ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley observed that most ex-players receive minimal training before being handed the microphone as a co-commentator or summariser. And often the job of the pundit is not merely to provide analysis or expertise, but authenticity: to create a mood, to sound “footbally”, to give the viewer or listener a flavour of the dressing room, intrinsic biases and all. 

This is important because for years, trying to explain the presence of unconscious bias has been virtually impossible to anyone who doesn’t want to listen. After all, Pogba is strong. Lukaku is big.

Meanwhile, a white player like Andy Carroll is often fetishised for his size and physicality, while a white defender like Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos is occasionally described as a “defensive monster”.

And yet the broader picture – one in which black work and black skill are systematically undervalued – is now irrefutable. You could argue that this is where racism these days most reliably lives and thrives: in the unspoken subtext, the creative ambiguity, the plausible deniability, the assumption that people of colour must uncomplainingly tolerate any stigma or indignity if the alternative is for white people to moderate their speech or thought one iota. 

These are tough conversations to have, hard-wired habits to reconfigure – especially in sport, which has always been about celebrating the anomalous, anointing the exceptional, and is thus susceptible to lazy othering. But if we’re serious about tackling racism in its most insidious forms, having them is the very least we need to do.

This article appears in the 08 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation