2020 was a year of racial reckoning. Within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the summer of 2020 brought the issues of racial injustice and inequality to the forefront of people’s minds. Society as a whole, and the institutions by which it is held up, had to come to terms with both their history and the current adversities facing people of colour. Football, one of the biggest aspects of our culture, and a huge influence on society, had its own reckoning.

In football we are all too familiar with seeing racism from fans. This can range from a Tottenham Hotspur supporter, in 2018, throwing a banana skin at the Arsenal striker Aubameyang, a Gabon international, to when Burnley supporters, last year, flew a plane towing the message, “White lives matter Burnley”, above Turf Moor, moments before kick-off against Manchester City. These are clear acts of racism, so when punitive action needs to be taken against the culprits, there is little ambiguity or debate. More importantly these are purposeful, vindictive misdeeds conducted by fans.

But what happens when the waters are muddied: when these misdemeanours are much less explicit, done by accident, or between professionals of the sport itself?

European football is one of the most multicultural industries in the world, and the English Premier League is the most diverse of the lot: 350 out of the 559 registered players in the English topflight (62.6%) are foreign players. This has always been a great asset for English football, as it looks to attract talent from all around the world. However, in recent years, we have seen some of the cultural differences brought to light in the form of the language that players use. Different cultures have varying thresholds for what is seen as offensive. This brings up a significant topic for discussion about the way all players are educated about race.

“Maybe the question we should be asking is why incidents like this occur in the first place.”

In December of last year, the Uruguayan international and Manchester United striker, Edinson Cavani, was punished for a controversial Instagram post. This post came shortly after Manchester United’s 3-2 win over Southampton in which he scored the equaliser and winning goal. The caption involved the use of the Spanish word ‘negrito’ which literally translates to little black man. This word was used in response to a friend congratulating him on his victory: “gracias negrito”. The player was immediately called up on this, and he issued the following statement:

“The message I posted after the game on Sunday was intended as an affectionate greeting to a friend, thanking him for his congratulations after the game. The last thing I wanted to do was cause offence to anyone. I am completely opposed to racism and deleted the message as soon as it was explained that it could be interpreted differently. I would like to sincerely apologise for this”.

Cavani was fined £100,000, given a three-match ban, and forced to enrol in an educational programme. The Uruguayan accepted his punishment without complaint or an appeal. Within the current societal context of the Black Lives Matter movement, this punishment is purposefully a harsh one. This acts as a deterrent for other players, urging them to pay attention to what they post, even if it’s something that comes naturally to them in their native tongues.

The question many ask is the socio-linguistic one, about the use of the word ‘negrito’: the cultural significance of its meaning, whether it is racially insensitive, or whether the player had any racist intent. Maybe the question we should be asking is why incidents like this occur in the first place. Some of the blame certainly lies with the clubs. Much like in a conventional workplace, all employees need to be educated on the way they should conduct themselves, and on the things that could be taken as offensive in the society in which they are employed. Players are employed by their clubs, and on that account, they should be given unconscious bias training, in addition to their media training. The incident involving Edinson Cavani could perhaps be put down to a failure of media training.

The Premier League puts on a show about taking a firm stance against racism and discrimination but perhaps not enough is being done behind this display. Taking the knee before kick-off is a great performative act. But maybe that’s all it is. Performative. Players should be given unconscious bias training as a matter of employment procedure, rather than simply as a punishment, in the case of Edinson Cavani.

The issues of unconscious bias stemming from cultural differences might be most distinct when focusing on international players. However, it is sometimes the less obvious aspects of the sport that are more pervasive and have the greatest effect on a wider societal scale.

“What is most worrying is the fact a large European audience is being exposed to a brand of commentary in which darker-skinned players are criticised more.”

A paper published in July 2020 by the Danish data sciences firm, Run Repeat, showed quantifiable racial bias in football commentary. The data revealed the biases in the way commentators describe black and dark-skinned players compared to their lighter-skinned counterparts. The study looked at a total of 80 matches from four of the top European leagues: Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1. The key findings of the study gave numerical and statistical proof of unconscious bias in football commentary by specifically looking at praise and criticism in different contexts such as power, speed, intelligence, hard work etc.

The researchers found that on footballing intelligence, 62.6% of praise was directed towards players of a lighter skin tone, and 63.3% of criticism was directed to players of a darker skin tone. With regards to quality, this disparity was even greater, with 67.57% of criticism targeted at darker-skinned players. Looking at the more granular level and the linguistics of commentary, the study found that on the subject of power, commentators were 6.59 times more likely to be referring to a darker-skinned player. The multiplicative factor was 3.38 when talking about speed. This is exemplified by commentators disproportionately using words such as ‘aggressive’, ‘pacey’, ‘a beast’, when describing and even praising black players.

The research showed that darker-skinned players receive an overwhelming number of comments about their physical and athletic abilities. The only categories for which lighter-skinned players proportionally received fewer comments were speed, power, form and versatility. Darker-skinned players received fewer comments for the other variables, those being hard-work, quality, intelligence, leadership and background. The researchers showed that darker-skinned players are less likely to be praised for their skill or intelligence, and more likely to be singled out for their appearance.

Black players are too often reduced to objects of pace and power, rather than natural skill, intelligence or finesse. Darker-skinned players are more likely to be criticised as a whole and most specifically when referring to intelligence and quality. There is no evidence to show that darker-skinned players are any less talented than their lighter-skinned teammates. Only the unconscious bias of the commentators can explain the conclusions of the study.

But why is this study such a revelation, and why are these findings so important?

“Football’s influences run deep in society. Our unconscious biases are reinforced by the commentary we listen to.”

Commentators play a significant role in the way a viewer or listener experiences a sport; this applies for all sports. They are viewed as the expert eye into the activity, to bring the observer closer to the action. They allow the viewer to have a more in-depth experience, to not just be entertained, but be educated by what they are seeing such that they go away with a greater understanding. Commentators open our eyes. As consumers of sport, we wholeheartedly trust them. We hand over the work of analysis to the commentators; we leave them to decode any intricacies and relay it to us in a way we can understand.

To put it simply, commentators make professional sport accessible. It is this level of influence they have over huge audiences that makes these findings by Run Repeat pertinent. The biases that commentators have will precipitate into the public understanding of the sport. If players of colour are referred to mainly for their athletic abilities, their pace, power and aggression, then this will certainly influence the public perception of these players.


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What is most worrying is the fact a large European audience is being exposed to a brand of commentary in which darker-skinned players are criticised more. If commentators do not appreciate certain darker-skinned players for their in-game intelligence, some of this sentiment will be taken up unconsciously by listeners. Football’s influences run deep in society. Our unconscious biases are reinforced by the commentary we listen to. It is fair to say that the wider societal effects of this will not be so easily quantifiable.