Racism continues to cast its ugly shadow over football. As the European Football Championships kick-off today, the British government has advised fans of Asian or Afro-Caribbean descent to “take extra care” when in Ukraine, host nation with Poland. Meanwhile, England defender and ex-captain John Terry awaits his trial for alleged racism. Against this background, a team of Swiss psychologists has just published a preliminary investigation into the potential effect of racial prejudice on fans’, players’ and referees’ judgements about the severity of fouls by Black and White players.
Pascal Gygax and his colleagues presented 43 White football players, 17 White referees and 22 White football fans with 64 challenge sequences created with the Xbox 360 console game Fifa 2005. Each sequence featured one player tackling another, and the clips had been rated by independent judges as ambiguous as regards the legality of the challenge. Players in the clips were White or Black and wore either green or white shirts. After watching each clip (between one and two minutes in length), the participants had to say whether a foul had been committed, and if so, rate its severity.
Based on previous evidence of racial prejudice towards Black athletes, the researchers anticipated that challenges by Black players would be judged harshly, particularly if they were challenges against a White player. Although the results did uncover evidence that race affects people’s judgements of fouls, the pattern of results was complicated.
There were signs the participants were sensitive to the risk of appearing biased, in that they were less likely to judge a foul had occurred whenever a sequence involved two players of different skin colour. Referees specifically were less likely to judge that a foul had occurred when a challenge was by a Black player. Paradoxically, participants overall were quicker to decide that a foul had occurred when a challenge was by a Black player, possibly because they harboured implicit expectations that Black players will be more likely to commit fouls.
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.
The researchers acknowledged the limitations of their study – most obviously that they’d relied on video game clips rather than real-life footage. However, they said they’d uncovered evidence of discrimination in the judgement of football challenges, and that crucially, “those were not always against Black players: thus, differentiation judgments in soccer based on skin colour may not be a black or white judgment.”
WAGNER-EGGER, P., GYGAX, P., and RIBORDY, F. (2012). RACISM IN SOCCER? PERCEPTION OF CHALLENGES OF BLACK AND WHITE PLAYERS BY WHITE REFEREES, SOCCER PLAYERS, AND FANS. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 114 (1), 275-289 DOI: 10.2466/05.07.17.PMS.114.1.275-289