Measuring the Cost of Racial Abuse in Football


Like many football fans around the world, Paolo Falco, a labor economist at the University of Copenhagen, was pleased with the outcome of the European Championship final last Sunday, where Italy defeated England in a critical penalty shootout. And then he was equally horrified.

In the hours following the match, three English players, all black, missed a penalty shootout. piled up with racial abuse on social media. The abuse enraged Prince William and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and rekindled the all-too-familiar adage: “You’re British when you win; when you lose, you are black.”

UEFA, the governing body of European football in recent years, has worked to combat racism against its players, both online and in stadiums. But the behavior continues; Players of color around the world, in Italy and elsewhere subjected to racist chants and nicknames, even throwing a banana on the field. Following Italy’s top league Serie A closely, Dr. “I have experienced all sorts of terrible things first hand, cursing and shouting at the players,” Falco said.

In December, he and two colleagues—economists from the University of Trento in Italy and Mauro Caselli and Gianpiero Mattera from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, respectively—published one of the first studies looking to measure this effect. -Stadium abuse in the game. their worksheetpending publication in a peer-reviewed journal, it compared the performances of nearly 500 Serie A players in the first half of the main Italian championship league’s 2019-2020 season – before the Covid-19 pandemic, when the stadiums were full and noisy – to the second half, when “ghost games” were played in empty stadiums.

The results were clear: a subset of players and only one player played noticeably better in the absence of the crowd. “We see that African players most targeted by racial harassment experience a significant improvement in their performance when fans are no longer in the stadium,” the authors wrote.

Dr. Falco spoke by phone from Copenhagen on Thursday. The following speech has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What inspired your work?

I was watching a football game after the quarantine started and realized what a different experience I had as even on TV I didn’t hear all the noises and all the cheering that typically goes on in the background of a football match. .

I’m from Naples and the football fans in Naples are definitely loud. In this type of stadium, you see emotions expressed at their best and at their worst. And you can’t help feeling that it’s having an impact on what’s going on on the field in the stadium.

I started to wonder: Does it make an equal difference for all players? Who are the players who will suffer more or less or gain more or less because of having fan pressure?

What was your working hypothesis?

Players targeted for their color will perform better when the pressure is removed, regardless of the overall pressure of playing in a stadium that is the same for all players.

It’s incredibly difficult to address this question under normal circumstances, because you don’t have the experience you want to have: to see how these players perform for themselves, with and without fans, before and after. Covid has given us exactly this natural experiment. From one day to the next, players went from full stadiums to empty stadiums.

We got curious and started analyzing the data. And indeed, we found that players were affected differently, with those most exposed to abuse seeing an improvement in performance once they no longer let go of that pressure. This effect survived even after controlling for a number of possible confounding factors such as the weather, the time of day the match was played, the strength of the opposing team, so we firmly believe it’s there.

Which metric did you use to measure player performance?

There are very detailed statistics on each player’s performance after each match, generated by a public algorithm. It’s much more than just goals scored, and it’s very objective: How far did the player run during the game? How many passes have they completed?

These are statistics from a database commonly used for fantasy team ratings and betting purposes, correct?

Yes true.

There is an interesting and growing literature on the impact of football fans on teams as a whole. For example, it has been shown that in the absence of spectators, the referees do not look very favorably on the home team and the home advantage is not that obvious as to who wins. What we wanted to do was look at individual players to see performance differences between players from certain ethnicities.

I want to go back to the very end of that match between England and Italy. Imagine for a moment what went through the minds of these players as they approached a penalty, knowing that they were not only under the same pressure as all the other players on the field, but were also Black. they are a minority and will most likely be treated exactly as they were treated the moment they make a mistake.

Think of the incredible pressure put on these players. It almost makes you tremble. So I don’t think it’s a huge leap of imagination to think we can find something of this sort in the data.

What did your results show?

We saw African players perform 3 percent better in the second episode of the season than in the first episode. Okay, you might think the 3 percent isn’t all that important. But if you were talking about the productivity or profit of a firm and its employees, 3 percent would be huge. If you see the players as workers, which is what they ultimately are, and they’re 3 percent less productive, that has repercussions for the team as a whole.

These are economic costs, not just moral or ethical concerns. Players of African descent play worse in front of the audience, but no one else performs better, so the overall quality of the game suffers. This is something that should bother club owners because they are investing in players.

We also examined the players of the teams that we know were particularly exposed to abuse at the beginning of the season. Italian authorities are actually recording cases of harassment by fans in the stadium, so we know which teams played in the matches before the quarantine with such racist behavior. And it was the players on these teams, including Napoli, who saw the biggest improvement in performance – 10 percent better – in the absence of spectators.

We are talking about the elite of elite athletes in the country. They are in the best position in terms of social status and money earned. It is therefore extremely worrying that these athletes are affected; If we look at the lower leagues, there should be much more than that.

Do you think your study group, with African players only 7 percent of the total, is robust enough to provide meaningful results?

This is a good question. But player count only plays a role to some extent, as these are the players we’ve observed many times throughout the year – 38 observations for each player each week, throughout the season, roughly before and halfway through the quarantine. The statistical power of the analysis is very strong because we are comparing not just two random samples, but exactly the same people before and after.

As fans in the stadium, we all like to think that we are more than just the audience, that our voices have a real impact on the game. Your research shows that we really do, and uncomfortably so.

Sometimes I get a little worried about what we’re doing here because we can unwittingly make people believe that shouting racist things will help their team win. On the other hand, I believe that research should aim to reveal the facts and always be transparent about them. In that case, I hope those responsible for the economy of this game will understand that racism costs them dearly and hurts their investment. When some players are not able to fully express their potential, the game is not as beautiful and attractive as it could be.

Investigations have shown that in the final shot put, a national British record of 55 feet would be set, but the 16-pound weight was found to be too light at half an ounce.


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