Is football really racist? The statistics say (partly) no

John Barnes back-heels a banana off the pitch during a game for Liverpool in 1988
John Barnes back-heels a banana off the pitch during a game for Liverpool in 1988

There is no racism in football. Or, at least, by one vital, but incomplete, metric, there is no racism in football.

There used to be. In the 1970s and 1980s, when black players were starting to become more common in English clubs, it was widely held that they “lacked bottle”, couldn’t defend, couldn’t be trusted to carry out their managers’ instructions on the pitch. But more than that, they were systematically undervalued by the people who paid their wages.

How do we know? Statistics. Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper, in their book Soccernomics, put forward a simple hypothesis: if clubs were systematically avoiding signing black players, then the demand for black players would be less, and those players would be available for lower wages. Since they knew that a football club’s success in football is very well correlated to its wage bill, they could show that if clubs with higher proportions of black players tended to overperform compared to its spending on wages, then those players were being undervalued by the market.

Lo and behold: it was true. On average, during that period, clubs who signed more black players tended to do better than you would expect given their wage bill; sufficiently better for it to be detectable with statistical methods.

Of course, the wage market in footballers is near-perfectly efficient now. Clubs soon spotted that they could get black players cheaper, the demand for black players rose accordingly, and now black players are paid equally to white ones of equal ability – there is no longer a tendency for clubs with a higher proportion of black players to do better. Some clubs will have more white or more black players, but it’s the product of randomness, not deliberate discrimination. (Interestingly though, according to Kuper and Szymanski, there is a premium on “fashionable” nationalities: Brazilian and Dutch players, for instance, tend to be overvalued compared to equally skilled Eastern Europeans. There’s still a market inefficiency there for smart clubs to exploit.)

So on one level – what you might call the most important level, that of employment discrimination against players – football, through the simple working of the free market, has rid itself of its undeniable race problem. There does seem to be a problem with discrimination against black managers, in that they are under-represented: unfortunately, the market cannot fix that in the same way, because while good players undeniably improve clubs, the impact of managers on clubs is almost negligible (that statement might be hard to swallow, but it’s one for a separate blog post). So there’s very, very little market pressure for clubs to seek out good, cheap black managers. Since most managers tend to be white former players, and football clubs tend to do things the same way they’ve always done them, white former players continue to be employed as managers.

What about the other manifestations of racism? Well, annoyingly, it’s hard to run a statistical regression on whether John Terry or Luis Suarez (or Mark Clattenburg) dislikes black people. Looking at modern English football clubs, and their overwhelmingly mixed dressing rooms, it’s hard to imagine that many people could really maintain a strong antipathy for other races, since they work with them every day. But presumably there are some. Lilian Thuram, the black former France defender, thinks it’s rare – “Sincerely, I’ve never met a racist person in football” – though he does think there’s an unspoken positive discrimination. He tells the Soccernomics authors that a Barcelona coach said of Gregory Abidal: “He’s an athlete of the black race.” Thuram responds: “It’s not because he stays behind after training to run. No, it’s because he’s black.”

Where there clearly is racism is among the crowds. Not because football fans are any more likely to be racists than the rest of us, I don’t imagine, but because there are about 1.5 million people who walk through the turnstiles every week in the top four divisions of English football, more than 700,000 in the Premier League alone. Among seven hundred thousand football fans, as in any large cross-section of society, there will be some racists, and if you have cameras at every game – not just Sky’s cameras, but thousands of phones and digital cameras – you’d expect someone’s idiotic monkey gesture or banana-throwing to be caught on camera. Now that racism in football is such a part of the national conversation, fans know to use that sort of thing to hurt their opposing clubs. (Almost every game, you’ll hear the chant: “You know what you are, you know what you ah-ah-are; [Name of footballer recently implicated in racism scandal], you know what you are.” Perhaps the entire crowd consists of members of Show Racism The Red Card, but maybe not.)

We’ve got to be careful not to understate the problem. In lots of countries, especially in Eastern Europe, crowd racism is overt and vicious. In England, it still exists, though at a far lower level than it was even 20 years ago. We need to ask not whether racism exists at all in football – of course it does; there are millions of people involved, it’s a statistical certainty – but whether it’s reached the same, comparatively low, level as the rest of society. If it has, then the problem is no longer what we do to reduce racism in football – it’s what we do about racism in society generally. That, I think, is too big a subject to address in a pithy final paragraph.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s