Study: Racism may affect sports penalties

Oct. 31, 2012 at 7:25 PM
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EVANSTON, Ill., Oct. 31 (UPI) -- Whether a football player is penalized for a post-touchdown celebration may depend on whether he is black or white, a Northwestern University study suggests.

Doctoral candidate Erika V. Hall and Professor Robert Livingston at the university's Kellogg School of Management first found that although 65 percent of NFL players are black, 92 percent of all unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, which include excessive post-scoring antics, during the 2010-11 season were called against black players.

The researchers then delved into the potential causal relationship between race and penalty by conducting experiments in which fictional black and white wide receivers made an incredible touchdown, and either celebrated or not. Study participants were then asked to rate arrogance and how much of a financial bonus each player should receive.

The researchers found players who celebrated after a touchdown were seen as equally arrogant, regardless of whether they were black or white, but study participants' compensation recommendations varied significantly.

When the white player celebrated, his compensation recommendations were relatively unchanged from those he received when he didn't celebrate. When the black player celebrated, his bonus recommendations dropped 21 percent compared to when he did not celebrate.

If the players did not celebrate both were rewarded.

"The study shows acts of cockiness or self-promotion are more acceptable when a member of a high-status group performs it than when one of a low-status group does," Livingston said. "In previous studies, we find that displaying humility and docility resulted in a higher success rate for black CEOs [chief executive officers], while it actually lowered the success rate of white CEOs who were most successful when they displayed arrogance or cockiness."

Hall and Livingston's research suggests that since black people have been viewed historically as a low-status group, expressing confidence and arrogance -- traits that are characteristic of high-status group members -- will often result in much harsher judgment and severe penalty as compared to whites.

"The current results provide robust evidence of a 'hubris penalty' against black athletes, but no such penalty for the same behavior from white athletes," the authors write. "Consistent with prior literature, these results confirm that the acceptability of an act will depend, not only on how positive or negative the behavior is, but also on who is performing it."

The study results are published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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