A new study of top league teams finds that college football teams with black coaches are penalized more often than teams with white coaches. They are given five to seven more penalty kicks per season than those used by white coaches.
The findings raise new concerns about racism in sports arbitration.
Sunday’s Quarterly Social Science Study proved correct even with an adjustment for the quality of players, coaches and schools studied. It comes amid growing concern about the dearth of black coaches at both the professional and collegiate levels in soccer, a sport in which 7 out of 10 players at its top, the NFL, are black.
“Teams with black coaches are frequently penalized,” said lead author Andrew Davis of North Carolina State University, based on an analysis of all Division I college football from the 2014 to 2019 seasons.
Collegiate football teams typically receive 4-10 penalty kicks per game, so the impact over the course of the season isn’t that great. A season 12 or 15 could have 50 to 150 team penalties, which would increase an average of about 5% in penalties for teams with black coaches.
However, penalties are supposed to be imposed fairly, and football is notoriously “the game of the inches,” note the study authors, where winning or losing can result in the smallest setback. “Penalties, no matter how many yards they are worth, can disrupt team momentum, kill scoring attempts, cost a lot of yardage and defense swings, and cost teams valuable opportunities in close games,” Davis said.
However, it is important to note that the study found an association between the two and was unable to conclusively prove that the additional penalties were directly due to the race or ethnicity of the coaches.
Representatives from the National Athletics Association, which manages Division I football, and the National Association of Sports Officials declined to comment on the study after requesting copies of the results.
In the study, researchers first looked at both the number of kicks and penalty yards across the 2019 Division I (Division 1) college football season, and found more of both were given to teams whose head coaches were black. They then extended the analysis to 2014, finding that teams with black coaches are typically awarded 5.5 extra penalties in a 12-game season and nearly 7 extra penalties in a 15-game season. (They couldn’t show the effect of penalty yards statistically, though, for a longer period of time.) The study controlled for other factors in the analysis, such as percentage win, quality of employment, and US News & World Report rating of the school, whether a player had Black medium and experience in coaching and his conference.
If confirmed, Davis said, the discovery of penalties wouldn’t be too surprising given the history of discrimination in American colleges, both in sports and in the classroom. “Referees, who have a great deal of discretion over what is called a penalty kick, and what does not apply to any given game, may attribute racial stereotypes about indiscipline to teams coached by black coaches.”
In about 40 states, college football coaches are the highest paid among public servants, with salaries rising in recent decades. Some experts said the new study reveals a new dimension to how race affects coaches in sports.
“I think they provide compelling evidence that there are differences in the number of penalty kicks per game,” said George Cunningham of Texas A&M, an expert in sports management. “The results show another form of bias that black coaches face in the context of football, both in college and in the professionals.”
While the effect of punishment is worth spreading, Jeremy Furman of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette said, “it doesn’t necessarily mean that race is the cause of the penalties, just that there is a strong correlation between having a black coach and receiving more penalties.” , who conducted separate research finding that black players are punished more often in football. He suggested that this may partly explain the effect of punishment found in the study, if black coaches end up recruiting more black players, who are in turn punished disproportionately.
However, Eastern College Football Officials Association Commissioner Milt Halstead told BuzzFeed News that he doubts the impact of the punishment the study found is real. “Referees watch the game, not the coaches,” he said. “This is where the sanctions happen.”
Davis acknowledged that the analysis would be stronger if penalty kicks could be timed to see if they come at pivotal moments in the game, perhaps by studying match shots. It can help to see if the additional penalties are really affecting the outcome of the game. The study also revealed the intriguing finding that teams with higher-quality recruits were generally more likely to be penalized, suggesting that referees may try to “even compete” in matches.
Professional football has long faced questions about racism, with players who took part in the national anthem protests in 2017 likely to have their salaries cut or sent to another team. In the NFL’s administration, some evidence suggests that the death penalty is often called early in games on black players. The 2021 NFL season ended with black coach, Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins, who was accused that racism played a role in his expulsion. The Pro League has required all teams to appoint at least one woman or person of color as a coach this year, in response to broader concerns about a shortage of black coaches in the professional ranks.