March Madness broadcasters reveal implicit bias

Submitted photo Dr. Rashawn Ray

Two college professors’ 10-year study of NCAA men’s college basketball games in which announcers’ comments on players were analyzed has pointed out that March Madness, among other inequities, has a racial bias problem. The study authors, Dr. Rashawn Ray and Dr. Steven Foy, originally published their findings last year. The MSR talked to both about their work.

Dr. Ray, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park and Dr. Foy, who also teaches sociology at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley studied over 50 men’s basketball broadcasts and 11 title games (2000-2010). They transcribed nearly 2,700 words and comments made by broadcasters during the telecasts and also looked at how broadcasters saw and talked about players of different skin tones, physical characteristics and other factors. 

“We look[ed] at the difference in announcers. We tend to look at many factors that could play a role” during a telecast, explained Foy.

Submitted photo Dr. Steven Foy

Foy and Roy originally published their findings last spring, when the MSR talked to them. Then COVID-19 hit and shut down sports, including cancelling the annual March hoops tournaments.

Now this year’s March Madness is in its final days, it’s also time to revisit the two professors’ work, which is just as relevant as ever. What they found in all respects confirmed what many of us who regularly watch games and listen closely to announcers knew for quite some time—namely that Black and White players are seen and described differently. 

“We both have been [watching] games and noticing things” on game telecasts over the years, said Foy. Both men noticed “that race played a role” in how players’ physical characteristics were being described along with their playing style. Some are obvious, such as adjectives like “sneaky” for a Black player and “gritty” and “smart” for White players.

“I think racial stereotypes are normalized in our society,” said Ray. “It’s the subtle ways that oftentimes get overlooked” during game action, he pointed out. “Racial bias isn’t always overt.”

Ray and Foy cited other examples: Lighter-skinned players are more likely described as good shooters and strategic. Darker-skinned players are noted for their physical presence and strength.

“One of the things that jumped out was how often commentators talked about how White people jump,” continued Foy. “They talked about that more than I expected. The way White people were bigger and taller, the announcers didn’t notice that as much.”

In other ways, the historical stereotypes that Blacks are physically superior but at the same time intellectually inferior, or that the lighter-skinned player is more eye-pleasing than the darker-skinned player, are used as much as the basketballs they play with.

This implicit bias by mostly White announcers can be intentional or unconscionable but it does occur, then and now. 

“I think our study will have people thinking about how they are speaking and describing people in the games and how that can have an immediate effect,” noted Foy.

“Sports often are the microcosm of the rest of society,” surmised Ray. “Racial biases that play out in sports also play out in other aspects of life. The words [broadcast] journalists use is often embedded in racial bias.”

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