Brazilian footballer Vinícius Júnior’s tears became world news recently when the Real Madrid player spoke about his experiences with racism. Jacco van Sterkenburg became intrigued by racist stereotypes as a psychology student 25 years ago during a research internship on sports media. He now holds the chair of Endowed Professor of ‘Racism’, Inclusion and Communication. This has allowed him to appoint a PhD student, co-funded by the football organisations Fare, FIFPRO and UEFA.

In your inaugural lecture, you referred to sports media as ‘learning sites’. What do you mean by that?

“Sports media reach a very large audience. People listening to the match commentary absorb comments about things like ethnicity and nationality without really noticing. Brazilian footballers, for example, are relatively often said to be very technical, to play samba football, and to play with flair. That becomes ingrained in people’s minds, like: Oh, that’s just how Brazilians are. With regard to Black players, they often hear that they’re physically strong, or fast, while they almost always see a white man as the captain who gets to have a chat with the interviewer for the post-game analysis. The Dutch national team now has Virgil van Dijk, a Black player, as captain, so there are some exceptions. But this only makes it a learning site.”

Aren’t the players in question just physically stronger or faster?

“Research shows that Black players are perceived as faster even when Black and white players are in positions that require the same speed. I’ve also heard from Black footballers themselves that the media portray them as fast, whereas they know from experience that their teammates are faster during running drills. So there is a bias that does not quite match reality.

At the same time, it is very complex. Wing positions require speed. Black players in wing positions are likely to be faster than midfielders. But we know from research involving youth players that trainers sometimes tend to put Black players in wing positions. That means they focus more on speed in training. Conversely, white players relatively often play in midfield, and evidence shows that midfielders often develop more in terms of leadership. Ninety per cent of captains are white men, but not because they naturally have more leadership qualities.”

Why are these kinds of insights important?

“Subtle forms of stereotyping are often overlooked. In most cases, people in the football world and in society know perfectly well what racism is and they disapprove of it. What I contribute is that I look at the breeding ground for that explicit racism, which can often be found in the words we use. Associating Black players with physical strength and speed is a breeding ground for wider forms of racism, where Black players are taunted with monkey chants in football stadiums.”

So should commentators choose their words more carefully?

“The history of the Netherlands is also one of colonialism and slavery, and its remnants can still be found in our language. So words are important, but I’m not saying we should scrutinise every word. Football journalists must be able to speak off the cuff, especially in live commentary. But this does mean that they sometimes say things that can be hurtful. So I say: Have a listen to your commentary and learn from this, develop your skills in that area.”

Are sports journalists willing to do that?

“That self-reflection is still often lacking. Since Black Lives Matter, I sometimes wonder if journalists are like, yes, I get that in the abstract, but that’s as far as it goes.”

You yourself are a white man who has now become an endowed professor. What do you think about that?

“Leadership and academic qualities are often associated with white men. By being an endowed professor as a white man, I’m perpetuating that image and the existing power relationships. That’s a disadvantage. This is an endowed chair created through collaborative projects with relevant organisations, but I did sometimes wonder whether I should go through with it. I talked it over with colleagues who are also friends, including colleagues of colour. They said yes, because the research I do is important and I shouldn’t pigeonhole myself too much. I did put together a very diverse team, and I also try to go outside my white framework with theoretical perspectives.”

What are your research plans?

“I would like to look at ways to encourage self-reflection among sports leaders and professionals in sports media. I also want to explore how sport can give a sense of belonging. We also plan to research the role of colour and ethnicity in sports games and advertisements.”

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