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Research

Shades of Praise

UMD Research Finds Basketball Commentary Linked to Athlete Skin Color

By Liam Farrell

Basketballs in different shades

Image by iStock

UMD’s Rashawn Ray and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Steven L. Foy found that skin tone plays a measurable role in whether student-athletes’ success gets linked to their physical attributes or their mental acuity and personalities.

Whether a TV announcer praises a college basketball player for being clever enough to grab steal or simply credits arms long enough to make the play depends on the color of the athlete’s skin, according to new research.

Rashawn Ray, UMD associate professor of sociology, and Steven L. Foy, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, found that skin tone plays a measurable role in whether the success of student-athletes gets linked to their physical attributes or their mental acuity and personalities. The study was published online this week in the American Journal of Sociology.

“Sports are objective in a sense. Players are doing similar types of things,” Ray said. “The way that commentators discuss players maps onto historical stereotypes of physical superiority of blacks and mental superiority of whites.”

The study was based on a random sample of 54 men’s NCAA tournament games broadcast between 2000 and 2010. Using transcripts of broadcaster comments and player positions on a skin tone scale, the researchers found players in the lightest skin tone category were more likely to be discussed in terms of overall performance, such as being called “as versatile as baking soda.” Those in the darkest skin tone category were more frequently addressed for their physical abilities, like “another guy with a long wingspan.”

Comments also shifted across the skin-tone scale. A one-unit increase in the darkness of a player’s skin resulted in a 16% decline in comments about offensive ability and a 12% decrease in comments about performance overall, with a 23% jump in comments about speed and a 21% increase in comments about size and height—even though players in the darkest skin tone category were on average significantly shorter and lighter than other athletes.

“Skin tone is having an effect in addition to race,” Foy said. “You have this operating as an independent dynamic.”

While skin tone did not seem to impact the likelihood of discussing a player’s mental characteristics, the types of comments made were different. Players in the lighter categories were described as clever or in control (“We’ve talked about … how crafty he is”) whereas players in the darkest skin tone category were associated with awareness (“He really understands not only where his four teammates are but what the defense is presenting to him”).

“Even though ‘awareness’ is mental, it’s distinct,” Ray said. “Awareness is more instinctual and suggests it’s closer to people’s animal-like behavior.”

Given the general propensity for broadcasters to talk about the physical characteristics of players with darker skin, one surprising result was that a one-unit increase in skin tone actually translated to a 20% decrease in comments about jumping ability. The researchers speculate this could be due to the long-held “White Men Can’t Jump” stereotype in basketball, so announcers only find the leaping prowess of athletes with lighter skin worth talking about.

The pair’s next step is going to be an analysis of the relationship between broadcaster comments and player position in the NBA draft.

“We’re going to see what the consequences are,” Foy said.

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