Dr Mills said: “Our study has taken a more nuanced approach and found that even though darker skin toned players still primarily dominate peripheral positions, there are central roles where skin-tone appears to be less important (e.g., striker and defensive midfield). That said, there are still some positions which appear almost exclusive to players of a lighter skin tone, such as goalkeeper and attacking midfield.”
Despite the vast differences in resources within the four English professional leagues, the researchers found the same link between a player’s skin tone and their playing position, across the board. Dr Mills said: “There could be several reasons for this type of positional disparity. One could be that coaches rely on stereotypes when evaluating individual athletes. This may lead to two players of the same ability but different skin tone being judged differently by their coach. Likewise, it could be a case of self-selection due to a lack of role models in certain positions. This could affect youngsters thinking about where they would like to play before they have taken their first steps on to a football pitch.”
Dr Mills also stressed: “Relying on stereotypes when under pressure is not unusual, but failing to see the strengths and weaknesses of individuals is a problem.”
Similar disparities are seen across football. The Football Association recently announced that it would adopt a version of the Rooney rule (i.e., a policy that requires sports teams to interview at least one Black, Asian and minority ethnic candidate for senior coaching and operation jobs) for future roles in the England set-up.
Roisin Wood, CEO of Kick it Out, added: “It is important that further research is conducted on top of the findings from the University of Essex to figure out how significant a role skin tone plays in opportunities provided across the whole of the sport.”
Dr Mills added: “The next stage of this research will be to first compare the findings to other footballing nations, particularly those which advocate the rotation of players between playing position (e.g., The Netherlands), before examining the potential role of cognitive biases in coach decision making.”