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Refs "more likely" to punish black players

CARD TRICK: Former Chelsea star Didier Drogba receives a yellow card

THE PROBABILITY of referees in the Premier League booking a black foreign player as opposed to a white player is “around 15 per cent more likely,” according to a study by the universities of Birmingham, Cambridge and Oxford.

The study, entitled Punishing the Foreigner, used data from 760 games over the top division’s 2006/07 and 2007/08 seasons to draw the conclusion that the men in black are liable to make decisions on factors they are not even conscious of themselves.

Researchers from the three universities relied on OPTA Sportsdata to investigate booking incidents in relation to time of play, area on pitch and contextual action such as passes, tackles and crosses in order to determine whether black players were receiving a disproportionate level of yellow cards.

They found a link to what psychologists refer to as implicit discrimination – the unconscious association between members of a particular group and a negative characteristic.

The University of Birmingham’s Dr James Reade said: “We do not believe that this is deliberate discrimination on behalf of referees. Indeed, they are probably completely unaware that this issue exists. Instead, this comes from the unconscious mental association.”

The academic study concluded that the level of discrimination increased when referees were more rushed to make a decision or when that decision involved more room for interpretation, such as a tackle from behind.
Another researcher, Dr Edoardo Gallo of Cambridge university, said: “Psychologists have shown that implicit discrimination is the by-product of very rapid, unconscious cognitive processes that replace deliberate, conscious decision-making when there is no time to make a decision or it takes too much effort due to the ambiguity and complexity of the situation.”

Gallo added: “The results of this research… are clear and something we would like football authorities to consider: referees are top professionals that are doing their best, but they are humans and need to receive adequate support to avoid the pitfalls of fast decision-making in a complex setting.”

However, the study’s conclusions have been criticised. Former Chelsea player Paul Elliott told the Voice of Sport: “Referees in the UK, in terms of integrity, I think are probably the best in the world.

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“I think they’re wholly objective, and I’m perplexed that on the basis of ethnicity why a referee would make such a judgement. I don’t buy that.

Elliott, however, said: “What I do buy is that when players behave inappropriately they do build reputations for themselves, and I think based on that reputation the referees are far more likely to give greater scrutiny to the player should he go to ground. I think reputation is inclusive in the decision-making process.”


The 48-year-old questioned how the researchers could comprehend what goes on inside the referee’s mind. “How can people that do reports enter the subjectivity of a referee’s mind? I think there is no evidence whatsoever where a referee has made a conscious or a subconscious decision based on someone’s ethnicity.”

Elliott asserted: “Referees get paid to look at the incidents, they don’t look at colour, they don’t look at race. They get paid to govern within the laws of association football.”

VIEWS: Elliott

Also critical of the study was Phil Dorward, head of public relations for Professional Game Match Officials (PGMO), the organisation which oversees the performance of Premier League referees.

“It’s too narrow a study to come up with that conclusion,” Dorward said. He dismissed the data used by the study as “inaccurate”, saying the researchers did not “have the full statistics”.


Furthermore, the PGMO executive rejected the relevance of the study to today’s game. “The data is from 2006/07 [and 2007/08 season], and in the report it says, without any justification, ‘we do not expect the results to differ from more recent data’. Again, that’s just complete nonsense, because the speed of the Premier League has increased 20 per cent in the last five years.

“We take exception to the fact that they’re saying research they did in 2007 holds firm now, when it absolutely doesn’t,” he added.

Dorward also refuted claims that player reputation becomes a factor. “Premier League football moves so fast you can’t actually say, it’s that player, therefore they’re biased against him because actually it’s x player and he’s got a reputation.

“No referee goes in to pre-judge, they have to take every foul on its merit. A referee has to make 171,000 decisions over the course of a season, and you can only judge on the actual foul, and every foul will be different,” he explained.

What the study does confirm is that opinion is divided over how the game’s law enforcers reach their decisions.
In this case, the academics are on the offensive as they tackle the received wisdom of referees remaining impartial.

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