One knee on the ground, head down, solemn air, sometimes a raised fist … since the resumption of their respective championships after months of interruption due to the pandemic of Covid-19, the footballers of the European clubs pay tribute to George Floyd, this African-American father killed during his arrest by a white police officer, on May 25, in Minneapolis, in the United States.
In the Premier League, the elite division of English and Welsh round ball, the officials even voted unanimously, in mid-June, the possibility of flocking on the back the “Black Lives Matter” jerseys (black lives count ), the slogan of the fight against racist and police violence across the Atlantic, whose scope is now global.
The football community is well aware that it is far from being spared from the scourge of racism. Evidenced by the infamous protrusions of some supporters, who with great reinforcement of monkey calls launched from the stands or bananas thrown on the lawn, sometimes target black players.
But this is yet another aspect of the problem that was highlighted by an investigation by the Danish research institute RunRepeat, which was made public on Monday 29 June with the support of the Professional Footballers ‘Association (PFA), the players’ union of England and Wales.
This study highlights the presence of racial prejudice in the comments of sports journalists across the Channel. While fair-skinned footballers are regularly praised for their intelligence, work ethic or technical quality, those with darker skin are more often than not reduced to physical attributes, such as power or speed.
2,074 comments, 80 games, 643 players
As part of its investigation, RunRepeat compiled more than 2,000 statements from comments from 80 games from four elite European championships: the British Premier League, Italian Serie A, Spanish Liga and French Ligue 1.
The research lasted six months and focused on twenty games from each championship for the 2019-2020 season. To avoid translation errors or inaccurate interpretations, the institute limited itself to the English-speaking interventions of seven broadcasters: Sky Sports, BT Sport, FreeSports, beIN Sports, TSN, NBCSN and ESPN.
The 643 players involved in these matches have been awarded, based on the data from the computer game. Football Manager 2020, a skin tone value between 1 and 20: 433 players were thus defined as having a “Lighter skin tone” (from 1 to 11) and 210 as having a “Darker skin tone” (from 12 to 20). The institute adjusted its figures to account for the fact that there were 1,361 comments on “light-skinned” players and 713 on “dark-skinned” players.
62.6% of praise for intelligence targets fair-skinned footballers
The 2,074 comments identified were then divided into eleven categories. Among them, comments on game facts – which refer to factual and objective reactions to the match – served as a test group. Comments such as “Here’s a good pass for Raphael” or “But it’s not the best ball from Toni Kroos” were thus recorded as comments on objective facts of play, positive or negative.
The study shows that “The two groups [de carnation] received the same proportion of factual comments and were commended or criticized to the same extent. ” According to RunRepeat, “The equal distribution in this control category (where commentators state facts) is an additional indication of the presence of bias in the other categories (which are based on the commentator’s opinion)”.
When sports journalists make more subjective comments, the imbalance between the two groups is obvious. In terms of game intelligence, 62.6% of praise thus concerns light-skinned footballers, and 63.33% of reviews of players with darker skin. Same observation for the quality of play: 62.79% of the positive comments are aimed at a player with fair skin, 67.57% of the reviews of players with dark skin.
“Players with a fair complexion should receive the same proportion of comments regarding, for example, their intelligence or work ethic as players with a dark complexion. The fact that this is not the case on a large sample indicates that there is a bias in the way the media talk about players according to the color of their skin “, deplore the authors of the report.
Journalists are also 6.59 times more likely to report the strength of a dark-skinned player than that of a light-skinned player, and 3.38 times more when it comes to speed.
A “structural racism”
“This study shows an obvious bias in the way we describe the attributes of footballers according to the color of their skin”, says Jason Lee, head of equality education at the PFA. “To deal with the real impact of structural racism, we must recognize and address racial prejudice” :
“If a player aspires to become a coach or manager, is there not an unfair advantage granted to players whom commentators regularly describe as intelligent and hardworking, when these opinions seem to be the result of racial prejudice?” “
In the wake of this investigation, the PFA Premier League and the English Football League announced Monday the launch of a program to increase the number of former black, Asian and other ethnic minority players among coaches. According to the BBC, to date, only six of the 91 managers in the top four British divisions are not white men.
As for the media, Sky Sports has already set up discussion sessions with its presenters, reporters and commentators, to come back to the importance of the vocabulary they use to describe the athletes.
Quotas and “African players” in France
The conclusions of RunRepeat are not without echoing the controversies that have occurred in France in recent years. In 2011, Mediapart had revealed the existence of an abandoned project to set up ethnic quotas in training centers. In the wake of the Blues’ fiasco at the World Cup in South Africa, the governing bodies of French football wanted to encourage the entry into training of technical players rather than favoring athletic selection criteria.
According to the verbatim of a meeting published by the news site, the discussion had skidded on racial stereotypes. At the head of the national selection, Laurent Blanc, had thus regretted that the player profile became uniform: “What is there currently like big, strong, powerful? Black people. (…) I think we need to refocus, especially for boys 13-14 years old, 12-13 years old, to have other criteria, modified with our own culture. “
A few years later, the same prejudices were taken up by the former international tricolor Willy Sagnol, coach of the Girondins de Bordeaux. During a meeting with the readers of the newspaper South West, he had detailed his vision of the balance of a recruitment:
“The advantage of the player, I would say typical African: it is not expensive, generally ready for the combat, one can qualify it powerful on a ground. But football is not only that, it is also technique, intelligence, discipline. Everything is needed. We need Nordics too. It’s the Nordic people, they have a good mentality. “
His words had surprised and disappointed his partner in the defense of the Blues, during the final of the 2006 World Cup, Lilian Thuram: “Unfortunately, there has always been prejudice against people from Africa, people who are black; we always lock them in their strength and we deny them a certain intelligence. These words reinforce these prejudices ”, he lamented on Europe 1. SOS Racisme, for its part, condemned “The filthy association of blacks and Nordics respectively in the physical and intelligence registers”.