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Can a football player's race affect how often he is penalized? Associate Professor Robert Livingston investigates.

Can a football player's race affect how often he is penalized? Associate Professor Robert Livingston investigates.

Pride and penalty

Black NFL players more likely than white counterparts to be penalized for excessive celebration, says Associate Professor Robert Livingston


11/13/2012 - For many players and fans alike, football just wouldn’t be the same without a well-deserved post-touchdown celebration. But new research from Kellogg Associate Professor Robert Livingston suggests that when football players express pride or arrogance — for example, unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for touchdown celebrations — black football players are more likely to be penalized than white players. 

In a new paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Livingston finds that black players may be more likely than white players to be penalized for putting their feelings on display.

With Kellogg PhD candidate Erika Hall, Livingston first analyzed all of the unsportsmanlike conduct penalties — including the “excessive celebration penalty” — leveled against NFL athletes during the 2010-2011 NFL season. Livingston and Hall found that although the percentage of black and white players in the NFL was 65 percent and 31 percent, respectively, 92 percent of the unsportsmanlike conduct penalties during that season were against black players.

Race and reward
To explore the potential causal relationship between race and penalty, the authors conducted a series of experiments presenting participants with the scenario of a football play. In the play, a fictional wide receiver (Malik Johnson, the perceived black athlete, or Jake Biermann, the perceived white athlete) makes an incredible touchdown and either celebrates or does not. Participants were then asked to rate arrogance and how much of a financial bonus the player should receive for the play.

The results of the experiments revealed that players who celebrated after a touchdown were seen as equally arrogant, regardless of whether they were black or white. But Hall and Livingston found a significant difference between compensation recommendations for the two players. When Jake Biermann celebrated, his compensation recommendations by participants remained relatively unchanged. However, when Malik Johnson celebrated, his bonus recommendations were 21 percent lower than those in the situation when he did not celebrate. If the players did not celebrate, then it did not matter whether they were black or white — both were rewarded.

The ‘hubris penalty’
“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,” says Livingston. “In previous studies, we find that displaying humility and docility resulted in a higher success rate for black CEOs, while it actually lowered the success rate of white CEOs who were most successful when they displayed arrogance or cockiness.”

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

“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.”

Further reading