Does racism matter in football?

race in footballI should probably clarify that title, because of course racism matters in football, as it does in every section of society, but does it directly influence matters on the pitch?  The European Championships kick off today in Poland and Ukraine, with the sceptre of racism hanging over the tournament due to fears that players and supporters will suffer racist abuse from fans.

Of course suffering racist abuse is a terrible thing, but what if action on the pitch was viewed differently depending on the colour of those that made the play?  A team of Swiss researchers suggest this may very well be the case.

To test their theory the researchers created 64 game sequences on the Fifa 2005 video game.  These were shown to 43 white players, 17 white referees and 22 white fans.  Each sequence consisted of one player being tackled by another, with each clip having been deemed ambiguous as to the legality of the challenge by an independent judge.

So we have 64 tackles, with doubts over their fairness, and the viewers had to decide whether a foul had been committed or not, and if there had been, how severe it was.

The results were fascinating.  When the challenge involved players of different skin colour, viewers were less likely to deem it a foul, with the referees in particular unlikely to judge it a foul if the change was made by a black player.  However when it was clear that a foul had been committed, participants were much quicker to come to that conclusion when it was a black player making the tackle.

The researchers suggest that the former is because people are aware of racism and make efforts not to appear so, but when the foul was obvious, they harboured implicit expectations that black players will be more likely to commit fouls and therefore judged faster than for white players.

What about the severity ratings?  Here there was evidence of a bias against white players, with fouls made by them judged more serious than those by black players.

When it came to the severity ratings, there was evidence for bias against White players – fouls by them were always judged as more serious, perhaps a consequence of compensatory efforts by the participants to appear non-biased. On the other hand, challenges on Black players were rated as less severe than challenges on White players, perhaps indicative of prejudice by the White participants.

"In essence," the researchers explained, "participants have conflicting sources of information which result in differential treatments of White and Black players, at times discriminatory to Black players, and at times to White players." An alternative, more pessimistic explanation put forward by Gygax and his team is that the participants expected Black players to be more aggressive and so raised the threshold for what they considered to be severe when judging their challenges.

Now obviously this study was based upon video game footage rather than real game footage, so that must be taken into account when assessing the findings, but it does suggest that skin colour does play a major role in how what happens on the field of play is judged, with players of both skin colours suffering different judgements.  So it's clearly not a black or white issue, and overcoming these disparities would appear considerably harder than it was to identify that they exist.

Here's hoping that in a months time the only thing we're talking about is the excellent football on show.

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3 thoughts on “Does racism matter in football?

  1. I think this happens all the time, but it's not limited to race. Once players/fans/officials have it in their head that a particular team or player does a certain thing then they tend to get pinned for it much more often. Alan Shearer was pretty thuggish on the pitch for instance but didn't have a reputation for it, so got away with it most of the time.

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