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 delighted with the outcome of the European Championship final last Sunday, which saw Italy beat England. in a decisive penalty shootout. And he was appalled in equal measure at the consequences.
In the hours following the match, the three English players, all black, who missed their shots on goal were beset with racial abuse on social media. The abuse sparked the indignation of Prince William and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and rekindled an all-too-familiar aphorism: “When you win, you are English; when you lose, you are black.
In recent years, UEFA, the governing body of European football, has made efforts to combat racism against its players, both online and in stadiums. But the behavior persists; in Italy and elsewhere, world-class players of color have been subjected to racist chants and epithets, and even bananas thrown onto the pitch. “I have been through all kinds of terrible things that have been said, cursed and shouted at players,” said Dr Falco, who closely follows Serie A, the best Italian league.
In December, he and two colleagues – Mauro Caselli and Gianpiero Mattera, economists at the University of Trento, Italy, and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, respectively – published one of the first studies seeking to measure the impact of stadium abuse on the game. Their discussion paper, which is expected to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, compared the performance of around 500 Serie A players during the first half from the 2019-2020 season of the main Italian league league – before the Covid-19 pandemic, when stadiums were full and noisy – until the second half, when “ghost games” were played in empty stadiums .
Their results were striking: a subgroup of players, and only one, performed significantly better in the absence of a crowd. “We find that players in Africa, who are most often the target of racial harassment, experience significant improvement in their performance when supporters are no longer at the stadium,” the authors wrote.
Dr Falco spoke by phone from Copenhagen on Thursday. The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What inspired your study?
I was watching a football game after the lockdown started and was struck by the difference I experienced even on TV just not hearing all the noises and chants that usually happen in background of a football match. .
I’m from Naples and the football fans in Naples are really loud. In this kind of stadium, we see emotions expressing themselves at best and at worst. And you can’t help but feel that it is having an impact on what is happening on the pitch in the stadium.
I started to wonder: Would this make a difference for all players in the same way? Who are the players who will suffer more or less, or win more or less, to have or not the pressure of the supporters?
What was your working hypothesis?
That the players targeted because of their color will perform better when the pressure is removed, regardless of the general pressure of playing in a stadium, which is the same for all players.
This question is incredibly difficult to tackle under normal circumstances, as you don’t have the experience you would like to have seeing how these players behave in relation to themselves, before and after, with and without fans. Covid has given us precisely this natural experience. Overnight, players went from full stadiums to empty stadiums.
We got curious and started to analyze the data. And we have found that indeed players are affected differently, those who are most prone to abuse seemingly experience an improvement in their performance the moment they no longer have that pressure on them. This effect survived even after we controlled for a host of potentially confounding factors – the weather, the time the game was played, the strength of the opposing team – so we firmly believe it’s there.
What metric did you use as a measure of player performance?
There are very detailed statistics, created by a publicly available algorithm, on the performance of each player after each match. It’s much more than goals scored, and it’s very objective: how far did the player go during the match? How many passes did they make?
These are stats from a database commonly used for fantastic team ratings and betting purposes, right?
Yes that is correct.
There is an interesting and growing literature on the effect that football fans have on teams as a whole. For example, it has been shown that the referees are not so favorable to the home team in the absence of spectators, and that the home advantage is not so pronounced in terms of the winner. What we wanted to do was look at individual players, see the differences in performance between those who come from certain ethnicities.
I want to come back to the very end of this match between England and Italy. Just imagine for a second what goes through the minds of these players as they approach that penalty, knowing not only that they have the same pressure as every other football player on the pitch, but also that they are Black, that they are in a minority, and they will most likely be treated exactly as they were treated when they made a mistake.
Think about the incredible pressure that is placed on these players. It almost makes you shiver. That’s why I don’t think it’s too big of a leap of the imagination to think that we could find something like this in the data.
What did your results show?
We found that African players did 3% better in the second part of the season compared to the first part. You might be thinking, OK, 3% isn’t that bad. But if you were talking about the productivity or profits of a company and its workers, 3% would be huge. If you think of football players as hardworking, which is what they are, and that they are 3% less productive, it affects the team as a whole.
These are economic costs, not just moral or ethical concerns. Players of African descent play less well in front of spectators, but no one else plays better, so overall the quality of the game is declining. This is something that should bother club owners as they invest in the players.
We also looked at players from teams we know were particularly prone to abuse early in the season. Italian authorities are actually recording episodes of abuse by fans at the stadium, so we know which teams were playing in matches before the lockdown where there was such racist behavior. And it was the players from those teams, including Napoli, who saw the biggest improvement in their performance – 10% better – in the absence of spectators.
We are talking about the elite of the elite athletes of the country. They are the best placed in terms of social status and money earned. The fact that these athletes are affected is therefore extremely worrying; if you looked at the lower leagues, there must be a lot more to that.
Do you think your study group, with African players making up only 7 percent of the total, was strong enough to deliver significant results?
It’s a good question. But the number of players only plays a role to a certain extent, as these are players that we observe several times during the year – each week 38 observations for each player during the season, about half before. locking and half after. The statistical power of the analysis is very strong because we are comparing exactly the same people, not just two random samples, before and after.
As fans in the stadium, we all like to think that we are more than just spectators, that our voices have a real impact on the game. Your research suggests that we actually do it, and in an uncomfortable way.
Sometimes I get a little worried about what we’ve done here as we may inadvertently reassure people in their belief that yelling racist things is going to help their team win. On the other hand, I firmly believe that research should aim to uncover facts and always be transparent about them. In this case, I hope those in charge of the economics of this game will understand that racism costs them money and hurts their investments. When some players can’t express their full potential, the game just isn’t as good-looking and engaging as it could be.
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