Study shows ethnic minority players are not treated unfairly by football referees

Thursday 11 March 2010

An analysis about whether there is a racial element to referees decisions to give a yellow card to football players in the Premiership, has been carried out by staff at the University of Surrey.

Dr Rob Witt, head of the Economics Department, worked with Barry Reilly, of the University of Sussex, on the study called “Disciplinary Sanctions in English Premiership Football: Is There a Racial Dimension?”

The project used data from five recent seasons and exploited an extremely valuable, but hitherto barely used, administrative database held at OPTA Sportsdata in London. These data were used in conjunction with specific information on the characteristics of players.

An analysis of raw data suggested evidence of a racial dimension in the application of sanctions with black and mixed race players receiving, on average, between a quarter and a third fewer yellow cards compared to white players in spite of having a higher foul count.

However, once a variety of characteristics are controlled for including a players’ field position, foul count, time played and club, the empirical analysis revealed no systematic evidence of a bias against black or mixed race players by referees.

Dr Reilly says: “Our study finds no systemic evidence that ethnic minority players in the English premiership are treated unfairly by referees when dispensing yellow card sanctions.

“Although the raw data on yellow cards dispensed actually suggest that referees appear to behave more leniently towards black and mixed race players than white players, the statistical evidence for such a claim is not found to be all that strong.”

The field position of a player is found to be important with defenders and midfield players statistically more likely to incur the wrath of referees than forward players.

The analysis showed there was no bias against black or mixed race players in the eyes of the referees.

But there is a racial dimension to the application of sanctions with black and mixed race players receiving between a quarter and a third fewer yellow cards compared to white players, on average.

The study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, found no evidence that ethnic minority players are treated unfairly by referees.

Dr Witt said: “A study of the English Premier League finds no evidence that ethnic minority players are treated unfairly by referees when dispensing yellow cards.

“If anything, at the average, there is evidence that referees appear to behave more leniently towards black and mixed race players than towards white players.”

The analysis revealed a harsher application of the rules by referees over time. On average, the number of yellow cards issued rose statistically between the last season studied (2007/08) and the earliest (2003/04).

The research found the salutary result that a player’s race is not a determinant of a sanction outcome and this reflects positively on the professionalism of referees.

The findings in regard to race differ from that detected in a study by Price and Wolfers (2007) in their study of the National Basketball Association in the US, which is currently the only other paper to our knowledge that has explored the relationship between race and disciplinary sanction outcomes in a professional team sport.

They found that during the 13 seasons from 1991 through 2004, white referees called fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players.

Notes for Editors:

Dr Barry Reilly is a Reader in Economics at the University of Sussex and the lead academic for the research.
Media enquiries: Howard Wheeler, Press Officer at the University of Surrey, Tel: 01483 686141 or E-mail: h.wheeler@surrey.ac.uk

The University of Surrey is one of the UK’s leading professional, scientific and technological universities with a world class research profile and a reputation for excellence in teaching and research. Ground-breaking research at the University is bringing direct benefit to all spheres of life – helping industry to maintain its competitive edge and creating improvements in the areas of health, medicine, space science, the environment, communications, defence and social policy.
Programmes in science and technology have gained widespread recognition and it also boasts flourishing programmes in dance and music, social sciences, management and languages and law. In addition to the campus on 150 hectares just outside Guildford, Surrey, the University also owns and runs the Surrey Research Park, which provides facilities for 140 companies employing 2,700 staff.

The Sunday Times names Surrey as ‘The University for Jobs' which underlines the university’s growing reputation for providing high quality, relevant degrees.

The Nuffield Foundation is a charitable trust with the aim of advancing social well-being. It funds research and innovation, predominantly in social policy and education. It has supported this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation. More information is available at www.nuffieldfoundation.org

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