New Data on Empty Stadiums Shows How Bad Soccer’s Racism Problem Is

Exploring sports racism with data science

Allianz Stadium
Work in progress on the pitch renewal at Allianz Stadium on June 21, 2021 in Turin, Italy.
Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

Following yesterday’s Euro 2020 final between England and Italy, police in the UK are now investigating racist abuse of a trio of English players. According to the Associated Press, racists have targeted Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, posting abuse online and defacing a Manchester mural featuring Rashford. It’s the latest in a number of incidents that suggest the sport has a growing and pernicious problem with racism.

Earlier this year, English football implemented a four-day boycott of social media in response to the ongoing racist abuse that’s targeted a host of players, and which seems to have gotten worse since the pandemic began.

Now, new data dating back to the earlier days of the pandemic reveals something even more unsettling. The Economist reports that University of Lausanne graduate student Fabrizio Colella conducted research on soccer games played to empty stadiums. Colella, according to the article, “compiled individual performance scores in every match during the past two years ranging from zero to ten, which were generated by an algorithm used for fantasy-sports competitions.”

He then classified players as white and non-white, and went on to compare their performance in stadiums with fans and in empty stadiums. The result? “On average, white players scored slightly worse without fans than they did in packed stadiums,” the article notes. “In contrast, non-white footballers’ performances improved to a statistically significant degree when fans were absent, by an average of 1.2%.”

Colella’s model also revealed that “[t]he effect was greater for the darkest-skinned players than for brown- or olive-skinned ones.” As a measure of the effect that fans’ racist behavior can have on the game, it’s a report with worrying implications.

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