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Are soccer players ‘intelligent’ or strong’? What a commentator praises them for may depend on their skin tone

European soccer commentators tend to credit lighter-toned players with intelligence, skill, and tactical adeptness, but darker-toned players with brute strength and power, for the same achievements on the field.

Are soccer players ‘intelligent’ or strong’? What a commentator praises them for may depend on their skin tone
[Source Image: farakos/iStock]

From the perspective of American sports fans, who have grown accustomed to the N.F.L.’s past stubborn resistance to peaceful protests, European soccer culture may seem more progressive. When players resumed the Premier League in June, after a break due to COVID-19, they donned Black Lives Matters shirts and took a knee during the opening game.

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But racism in soccer is a historical and ongoing problem, with many overt incidents over the years that have led anti-racism advocates to call it an “epidemic.” A new study takes on a less blatant form of racism: unconscious bias in soccer commentary. The research found that prejudicial stereotypes exist in the distinct ways in which soccer announcers describe the actions of white and Black players on the soccer field. For the same ball-balancing achievements, for example, commentators praise players with lighter-toned skin for their intelligence, skill, and tactical adeptness, but for players with darker-toned skin, announcers credited their brute strength and power.

This focus on Black players’ strength rather than their skills can be a dangerous double standard and has appeared in soccer discourse before. Romelu Lukaku, a Belgian player of Congolese descent, referred to the issue as the “pace and power” element and told The New York Times that a journalist once said United should not sign him because he is not an “intelligent” footballer. In a 2018 World Cup matchup between Senegal and Poland, pundit Slaven Bilić said the African team relied on its “pace and power.” About that match, journalist Zito Madu wrote: “Before Senegal had even kicked the ball, they were being described not by their skill, creativity, or their decision making, but with the standard words you hear about African teams: Pace, power, physicality, raw talent, tactical naivety, disorganization, swagger . . . It’s the historical idea of the black man as a senseless brute, repackaged in sporting language.”

RunRepeat, a Danish research firm, carried out the study in partnership with the Professional Footballers’ Association (P.F.A.), the world’s oldest trade union for sports, which represents 4,000 professional soccer players in England and Wales.

“To address the real impact of structural racism, we have to acknowledge and address racial bias,” said Jason Lee, a former player and P.F.A.’s equalities executive, in a statement in the report. “This study shows an evident bias in how we describe the attributes of footballers based on their skin color.”

Led by content and research director Danny McLoughlin, the RunRepeat study analyzed 2,073 statements about 643 unique players from 80 soccer games over the 2019-2020 season, using English-language broadcasts across four of Europe’s top leagues: England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, France’s Ligue 1, and Italy’s Serie A.

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Comments were divided into 11 descriptor categories, such as hard work, intelligence, power, and speed. The methodology was based on three commonly cited sports studies over the past 25 years that have delved into the intersection between racism and TV coverage of sports, including college basketball and pro football. For this study, each player was classified not by ethnicity but by skin tone—a conscious decision, researchers said, to base the study on what viewers superficially see on their TV screens before they can analyze an athlete’s heritage.

Researchers found that announcers attributed the in-game actions of lighter-skinned players to their intelligence, hard work, and leadership more than for those with darker skin; the reverse was true for form, power, and speed. When commentators talked about power, they were 6.59 times more likely to be talking about a player with a darker skin tone. When talking about speed, they were 3.38 times more likely to be talking about a player with a darker skin tone.

While commentators praised white players for their mental capacities, they also criticized Black players for a perceived absence of them: They praised versatility in lighter-skinned players 66% of the time versus 34% for players with darker skin and criticized the lack of versatility 26% versus 74%, respectively.

Announcers praised Martin Ødegaard, a Norwegian midfielder who plays for Spain’s Real Sociedad, for his tactical ability to find space on the field—”he has a knack for finding it,” they said. They praised Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, who both play for Paris Saint-Germain, for having “great understanding” when working together, another example of mental capacity.

While neither Neymar nor Mbappé are white—Mbappé’s parents are Cameroonian and Algerian; Neymar is Brazilian—they are lighter in terms of their skin tone than some other players, such as Duván Zapata, a Columbian striker who plays for Italian club Atalanta. In a single play, Zapata was said to have “shrugged” and “moved” opponents out of the way, and to possess “sheer power.” Other Black players were described as “strong [and] combative.”

McLoughlin stresses that nothing the announcers said jumped out to him as “overt” racism. “What we were looking at wasn’t necessarily the comments in isolation,” he says. “It’s the patterns of speech.” This gets to the issue of racially coded language.

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This kind of language, especially when repeated for specific kinds of players, can reinforce harmful stereotypes about these athletes. In one of the earlier similar studies on collegiate sports, from 2005, coauthor James Rada wrote that “Portraying African Americans as naturally athletic or endowed with God-given athleticism exacerbates the stereotype by creating the impression of a lazy athlete, one who does not have to work at his craft.”

It’s not necessarily inherently bad to compliment a player for his athleticism or strength in a physical sport. “But is the reason you’re doing that just because he’s fast or powerful, or is it just a lazy stereotype?” McLoughlin asks. The wider concern is that regular fans are interpreting these qualities in the same way as announcers. And, while he’s careful not to assume, McLoughlin says there’s a possibility that viewers may carry these unconscious biases over to their “decisions in everyday life.”

For the athletes, the worry is that these stereotypes may directly affect their professional futures. “If a player has aspirations of becoming a coach,” Lee noted in the report, “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?”

Possible solutions to this issue may include more training for announcers, and more diversity in commentary jobs, McLoughlin suggests. But broadcasters need to be aware of that bias in the first place, and this study may help ring that alarm. “Hopefully, they can step back and think more about why they use certain words for certain players,” he says, “and whether they’re treating both groups of players the same.”

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