A new paper published by Danish sports data company RunRepeat and backed by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) makes it clear that soccer commentary in the United Kingdom, United States and Canada has a racism problem.
Researchers from RunRepeat sampled 80 games from the 2019-20 seasons of the English Premier League, French Ligue 1, Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga — broadcast across seven different networks1 — and analyzed more than 2,000 statements made by commentators about 643 unique players. The study included 1,361 comments about players with lighter skin and 713 comments about players with darker skin.2 The study found that, weighting for the different number of comments made about each group, players with lighter skin were praised more frequently for their intelligence (62.6 percent of the comments coded as positive were about players with lighter skin), work ethic (60.4 percent) and overall quality (62.8 percent), while 63.3 percent of criticism about a player’s intelligence was aimed at players with darker skin, along with 67.6 percent of criticism about a player’s quality.
The study also found that players with darker skin were often reduced to racist tropes about their speed and strength, which is often coded by commentators as “pace and power.”
“The study is important as it [communicates] what a lot of people already know,” said Jason Lee, the equalities education executive for the PFA and a former Premier League player, over WhatsApp. “Which is that people from different ethnic groups can do exactly the same things in a game and yet be described in a different way.”
While the study focused on in-game statements, Lee told FiveThirtyEight that it could certainly have included statements from studio segments. Take, for example, the comments from former Croatia manager and current West Bromwich Albion manager Slaven Bilić after Senegal beat Poland in the 2018 World Cup. After gesturing toward co-host Patrice Evra — who is Black, and who won five Premier League titles and a Champions League title with Manchester United and two Serie A titles with Juventus — Bilić said: “Senegal — which is not typical for African teams — they play for each other, and they deserved totally [to win]. They didn’t make any mistakes.”
Zito Madu scrutinized the media’s response to Senegal’s victory in a piece for SB Nation:
“As annoying as it always is, it’s never surprising to see commentators fall back on coded language when they have to discuss black players, especially Africans, in soccer. 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, and all the other terms that are part of the same old language that pretends to compliment black players by reducing them to their physical bodies and derides them for not mentally understanding the game. It’s the historical idea of the black man as a senseless brute, repackaged in sporting language.”
In his piece, Madu also noted how seamlessly the racist language slips from commentators to social media accounts with massive followings. For example, after Senegal beat Poland, Twitter account Watch LFC — a Liverpool fan account with more than 85,000 followers — tweeted that winger Sadio Mané put in a “fantastic shift” for Senegal, citing both his pace and power.
Mané is perhaps the best player on Liverpool, which is perhaps the best soccer team in the world. His movement off the ball is second to none; he is relentless while pressing opposition defenders; he is almost singularly gifted at finding space that doesn’t seem to exist. There is hardly a more tactically brilliant player in world soccer than Mané. But as Madu noted, Black players are too frequently reduced to a racist trope by white commentators who fetishize their “pace and power” without also celebrating their tactical brilliance.
“It’s not that black players can’t be fast and powerful, it’s that in soccer, too often, it is the only thing they can be,” Madu wrote.
Bilić’s comments aren’t the only racist ones that spring to mind, especially from high-profile white commentators. Former Liverpool and Scotland captain and current Sky Sports soccer pundit Graeme Souness has a history of criticizing the intelligence of Manchester United star Paul Pogba, a French player of Guinean descent, live on broadcasts.
In 2016, Souness said that Pogba had to “develop his football brain,” and that he didn’t believe he had “a great understanding of the game.” In 2017, Souness said he wished Pogba played more like Marouane Fellaini — a Belgian player of Morrocan ancestry, and who Souness referred to as a “thug” in the next breath — before calling the Frenchman “a bit of a YouTuber,” an apparent critique of the fact that Pogba often does seemingly impossible things with a soccer ball at his feet. Whenever Souness does compliment Pogba, it isn’t about the midfielder’s creativity or intelligence, but rather his “muscularity” or “athleticism.”
Souness and Bilić are hardly the only white soccer pundits peddling this kind of barely coded racism, as we can see in this study. Lee suggested that all commentators receive unconscious bias training; a researcher from RunRepeat who worked on the study told FiveThirtyEight that about 94 percent of the commentators and co-commentators analyzed in the study were white. “There are Black pundits, but not many — if any — lead presenters or commentators,” Lee said.
And whenever any white commentator deploys “pace and power” or “athleticism” to describe a Black player — without also commenting on their tactical intelligence, skill, creativity or work ethic — they are not only missing the mark in terms of their soccer critique, but also denying Black players’ humanity.
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