Ethnic minority football players not treated unfairly by referees

15 March 2010

Academics at the University of Surrey have concluded that ethnic minority football players in the English Premiership are not treated unfairly by referees when being disciplined on the pitch.

Dr Rob Witt, head of the Economics Department at the University of Surrey and Barry Reilly from the University of Sussex conducted the study using data from five football seasons and an administrative database held at OPTA Sportsdata in London. These data were used in conjunction with specific information on the characteristics of players. The study was funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

No evidence of bias
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 said: “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.

More leniency for ethnic minority 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.

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).

Read the full press release on the University of Surrey website.