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‘Intelligent’ or ‘Strong’: Study Finds Bias in Soccer Broadcasts


MANCHESTER, England — For two weeks, the players of the Premier League have been taking a knee before games, demonstrating their support for the Black Lives Matter movement to millions of viewers across the world. Their peers in the Bundesliga had done the same. In Spain, Italy, and the United States players have followed suit.

The protests have made it plain that the players do not believe soccer is immune to the kind of systemic inequalities that brought millions to the streets.

On Monday, a study called into question yet another aspect of soccer that does not appear to be a level playing field.

According to research conducted by RunRepeat and published by the Professional Footballers’ Association, the union for players in England and Wales, the difference in the way European soccer commentators describe black and white players is stark.

Documenting an issue players have long bemoaned, the researchers found that broadcast commentators were not only far more likely to praise white players for their intelligence, leadership qualities and versatility, they were also substantially more likely to criticize black players for what they regarded as the absence of those attributes.

Instead, the study found that nonwhite players tend to receive praise for their physical qualities: what Romelu Lukaku, the Inter Milan striker, has referred to as the “pace and power element.” Black players were four times more likely than their white counterparts to be discussed in terms of their strength, and seven times more likely to be praised for their speed.

Those were not the only differences. White players, according to the study, were more likely to be credited with an admirable work ethic. Black players’ performances, even when stellar, were more likely to be attributed to a burst of good form.

“Commentators help shape the perception we hold of each player, deepening any racial bias already held by the viewer,” said Jason Lee, the P.F.A.’s equalities education executive. “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 or 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?”

The P.F.A. study examined more than 2,000 remarks from commentators, concerning 643 players and spread across 80 games — in the top divisions of Italy, Spain, England and France — from the current season.

The study is not the first of its kind. The academics James Rada and Tim Wulfemeyer analyzed racial descriptors in a 2005 paper that looked at televised college sports in the United States.

“Portraying African Americans as naturally athletic or endowed with God-given athleticism exacerbates the stereotype,” they wrote, “by creating the impression of a lazy athlete, one who does not have to work at his craft.”

The P.F.A. study found that when analyzing in-game events — like the accuracy of a shot or a pass — commentators spread their praise and criticism evenly between white and nonwhite players: there was no bias, it concluded, when assessing factual events.

Bias, though, seeped through when discussing the players in more general terms. As Rada and Wulfmeyer found, the “brain versus brawn” stereotype held, even when discussing elite soccer in 2020. White players were praised and black players criticized more frequently for their quality and ability to adapt to different roles, and black players were singled out for their physical strengths, rather than their mental ones.

Players have noticed. Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling, among others, has spoken of the need to ensure greater representation of black players in managerial and executive positions. But they also are aware of how they are talked about during broadcasts.

“It is never about my skill when I am compared to other strikers,” Lukaku said in an interview with The New York Times last year. “My one-on-one dribbling is good. I can do a step-over. I can beat a player. I remember one comment from a journalist that United should not sign Lukaku because he is not an ‘intelligent’ footballer.”

Efforts to focus attention on unequal treatment have increased in the weeks since European soccer has returned to the field from its suspension because of the coronavirus. Players in Germany, the United States and elsewhere have paid tribute to George Floyd, the black man killed while in police custody in Minnesota last month, and a group of Premier League captains led an initiative that has seen all players take a knee before matches while wearing shirts with “Black Lives Matter” printed where their names would normally appear.

On Monday, the P.F.A., the Premier League and the English Football League announced a new program that they said would increase the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic, or BAME, players transitioning from playing careers into full-time coaching roles. According to a recent BBC survey, only six of the 92 managers in England’s top four divisions are not white men.

“The P.F.A. is proud to support a diverse membership on the pitch,” the organization’s chief executive, Gordon Taylor said, “and we are determined to ensure this also translates to substantial BAME representation in all other areas of the game.”



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