Explained: A study points to racial undertones in NBA commentary

The data showed that when commentators praised a darker-skinned athlete, it was more to do with the player's athleticism. For lighter-skinned players, it was more to do with intelligence, leadership, mentality and work ethic.

The 2019-20 NBA season was one highlighted by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. All teams and players involved expressed their solidarity in the fight against racism. Yet, a study published by Danish research firm runrepeat.com revealed that the commentary during that particular season had undertones of racial bias.

The data showed that when commentators praised a darker-skinned athlete, it was more to do with the player’s athleticism. On the other hand, if a commentator praised a lighter-skinned player, it was more to do with his intelligence, leadership, mentality and work ethic.

Similarly, darker players were criticised more when it came to intelligence and lighter-skinned players were pulled up for their athletic ability.

Reading the numbers

The study considered 40 matches during the 2019-20 season, taking into account comments made regarding 300 different players. Since 230 of those players were deemed to have ‘darker skin tone’ and 70 ‘lighter skin tone’, the data was analysed after adjusting ratios to equal the number of comments made about players in both categories.

Once that was done, it was discovered that commentators were 1.37 times more likely to talk about the intelligence of a light-skinned player and 1.78 times more likely to discuss the athleticism of a darker-skinned player.

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Stats speak

When it came to discussing intelligence, lighter-skinned players were praised 63.41 per cent of the time, as opposed to 36.59 per cent in the case of darker players. At the same time, if a player was to be criticised in terms of intelligence, darker-skinned players copped 76.92 per cent of the criticism, while lighter-skinned players were criticised 23.08 per cent of the time.

While talking about athleticism, darker-skinned players were complemented 69.03 per cent of the time (and criticised 38.1 per cent) while lighter-skinned players were praised for their athleticism 30.97 per cent (and criticised 61.9 per cent) of the time. Though not openly stated, the stats point to the underlying idea that darker-skinned players with the proverbial ‘God-given talent’ are lazier and don’t often work hard on their physicality.

Similarly, when it came to talking about ability, 59.4 per cent of the criticism was dealt towards darker-skinned players.

The study also found that when talking about a player’s leadership, mentality and work ethic, darker players faced criticism 73.9 per cent of the time.

Commentary on in-game events

There was an alleged bias when dissecting a player’s style.

When considering in-game events, the study found that praise and criticism levied on players with different skin complexions were relatively equal.

Comments made to praise a player were split 47.1 per cent for darker-skinned players to 52.9 per cent for lighter-skinned players. The split for criticism was 49.5 per cent for darker-skinned players and 50.5 per cent for lighter-skinned players.

Similar bias in European football

A previous study conducted by runrepeat.com revealed that there was racial bias in commentary during the 2019-20 Premier League, La Liga, Italian Serie A and French Ligue 1 seasons as well.

The study found that 62.6 per cent of the praise regarding intelligence was aimed at lighter-skinned players and 63.33 per cent criticism was for darker-skinned players. Similarly, fair-skinned players were praised 60.4 per cent of the time when commentators were talking about work ethic.

Meanwhile, commentators were 6.59 and 3.38 times more likely to talk about a darker-skinned player’s power and speed respectively.

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