Posted on May 9, 2022

College Football Referees Penalized Teams With Black Coaches More Often Than Those With White Coaches, a Study Suggests

Dan Vergano, Buzzfeed, May 5, 2022

College football teams with Black coaches are penalized more often than teams with coaches who are white, a new study of the highest division teams has found. They are given five to seven extra penalties per season compared to ones with white coaches.


The Social Science Quarterly study released on Sunday held true even adjusting for the quality of the players, coaches, and schools studied. It comes amid rising concern about the dearth of Black coaches at both the professional and college level in football, a sport where 7 out of 10 players in its highest ranks, the NFL, are Black.

“Teams with Black head coaches are more frequently penalized,” said lead author Andrew Davis of North Carolina State University, based on the analysis of all Division I colleges football games from the 2014 to 2019 seasons.

College football teams typically receive 4 to 10 penalties per game, so the effect over a season is not huge. A 12- or 15-game season might have 50 to 150 penalties for a team, which would roughly average to a 5% increase in penalties for teams with Black coaches.


If confirmed, the penalties finding wouldn’t be too surprising considering the history of discrimination at US colleges, seen both in sports and in the classroom, Davis said. “Referees, who have a great deal of discretion over what gets called a penalty, and what does not on any given play, may attribute racial stereotypes regarding lack of discipline to teams coached by Black coaches.”


“I think they provide compelling evidence of differences in the number of penalties per game,” said Texas A&M’s George Cunningham, an expert in sports management. “The results show another form of bias that Black coaches face in the football context, whether in college or professional.”

While the penalty effect is newsworthy, it “does not necessarily mean that race is the cause of the penalties, just that there is a strong relationship between having a Black head coach and receiving more penalties,” said Jeremy Foreman of University of Louisiana at Lafayette, who has done separate research finding Black players were more often penalized in football. That might partly explain the penalty effect found in the study, he suggested, if Black coaches end up recruiting more Black players, who are in turn penalized disproportionately.

However, Eastern Collegiate Football Officials Association Commissioner Milt Halstead told BuzzFeed News that he doubted the penalty effect found by the study was real. “Referees are watching the play on the field, not the coaches,” he said. “That’s where the penalties happen.”