New RunRepeat report suggests Racial Bias in Football Commentary


RunRepeat’s new report made in association with the PFA sheds further light on an oft revisited topic.

A new report by Danish research body RunRepeat suggests that racial bias is evident in football commentary. The study found that players with darker skin were “significantly more likely to be reduced to their physical characteristics or athletic abilities -- namely pace and power -- than players with lighter skin tone players were.”

The study which was undertaken in partnership with the PFA is the first of its kind and analyzed 2,073 statements from commentators in 80 football matches from the 2019/20 season. This ranged across a number of the continents top leagues including the English Premier League, La Liga, French Ligue 1 and the Italian Serie A. The findings referenced commentary from a number of broadcasters in the UK and beyond, including Sky Sports, BT Sport, ESPN and BeinSport.

The key findings from the study found that this bias also extended to praise and criticism. Amongst the matches which were covered, 62.60% of praise was aimed at players with lighter skin tone and a disproportionate 63.33% of criticism was aimed at players with a darker skin tone. To account for the discrepancy in the number of ‘lighter skin tone’ and ‘darker skin tone’ players, RunRepeat analyzed the ratio of praise and criticism to determine their results. They relied on the popular football simulator ‘Football Manager 2020’ which itself houses a database maintained by 1,300 scouts to help determine how each player's skin tone would be categorized.

Players with darker skin tone were more likely to be on the receiving end of criticism when dialogue concerned intelligence, versatility and quality while their counterparts with lighter skin were more likely to be on the receiving end of praise. Curiously, work rate appeared to be the exception. While players with lighter skin received more praise for their work rate, they also came in for more criticism on the matter.

The topic of how racial bias is reflected where athletic ability is concerned was also considered. The reality is that elite level players are rarely criticized for their athletic capacity, however the research found that when praising players for their speed, 84.17% of praise is directed at players with darker skin tone. Likewise, when praising players for their strength, 86.76% of comments were again aimed at players with darker skin tone. This may be an oddity to some.

That praise regarding physical attributes is skewed toward players with darker skin may appear a non issue and could in fact be seen as a positive in the eyes of some readers. However, the degree to which this praise is skewed is eye catching in itself and within the context of the above, raises questions as to whether this line of thinking is grounded in less than positive perceptions which sees darkness associated with brute force. This association is played out in the form of ‘praise’ of athletic ability but has the effect of seeing players with ‘darker skin tone’ reduced to their physical attributes.

As quoted in the study, viewing these players 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.”

The PFA Equalities Executive, Jason Lee added to this saying:

"To address the real impact of structural racism, we have to acknowledge and address racial bias. This study shows an evident bias in how we describe the attributes of footballers based on their skin colour. Commentators help shape the perception we hold of each player, deepening any racial bias already held by the viewer. 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/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?”

Lead ITV commentator Clive Tyldsley has also chimed in on the debate calling for co-commentators to receive training on racial stereotyping. Tyldsley has said that he has written to the FA about setting up proper training to address the matter, and provided further updates of his thoughts today on his personal YouTube channel.

He said: We should try to use the language accurately and responsibly. Racial stereotypes are not just morally wrong they are inaccurate and they are irresponsible. In my opinion far too much sports commentary is lazy and pointless.

He questioned how invested viewers were in what commentators had to say as a result of this, before considering whether co-commentators (who for the most part are explayers that move into the commentary booth) are briefed on the thought processes and responsibilities that come with broadcasting.

He added: “Co-commentators may well have contributed to the stereotyping in these findings. Most of the opinions and judgements you hear come from the co-commentator.”

How much will change is unknown but the Times have reported that BT Sport is to bring in mandatory training for all staff as a result of the report.

To read the full report led by Danny McLoughlin and for better understanding of its methodology, click here.

Mayowa Ayodele