Saturday, August 19, 2023

Racial stacking

In the last two decades, a surge of research has turned its focus towards understanding the role of sports within immigrant societies. In Europe, particularly in Germany, there's been a significant emphasis on sports as a tool for integration. However, the intricate ways racism intertwines with sports have often been overlooked. While a wealth of studies explores racism's presence in sports — touching on subjects like racial disparities, biased media portrayals, and uneven representation in leadership roles — a consistent thread emerges: deeply ingrained racist beliefs persist within the realm of sports. Paradoxically, this phenomenon remains insufficiently examined within the German context, creating a gap in academic exploration.

This article hones in on one specific facet of anti-Black racism in team sports, a phenomenon coined 'racist stacking.' This refers to the conspicuous underrepresentation of Black players in pivotal and leadership roles, in stark contrast to their overrepresentation in physically demanding positions. Our central question revolves around whether this occurrence finds a foothold in German men's professional soccer and whether it should be seen as a form of institutional racism.

To challenge the concept of distinct human 'races,' we employ the term 'racist stacking' instead of 'racial stacking.' This shift highlights the significance of language in dismantling racial beliefs. Even when the construct of 'race' is employed in a socially nuanced manner, racism is far more intricate than 'race' alone can capture; it's interwoven with gender, class, migration, language, and citizenship. In this context, the terms 'Black' and 'white' signify processes of racialization, societal positions, and power dynamics rather than mere skin color.

Historically, research on racist stacking surfaced in the 1960s in the United States. It revealed a concerning trend: the systematic underrepresentation of Black athletes in pivotal roles across sports like baseball, football, and basketball. This investigative work spread to other countries and sports, soccer included, though with a primary focus on England. Strikingly, despite shifts in the sports landscape, older and contemporary studies alike point to a consistent trend: Black players are frequently confined to roles emphasizing physical prowess, while white players continue to dominate roles that involve leadership and decision-making.

Delving into racist stacking often involves scrutinizing whether Black players are disproportionately assigned less influential positions, aiming to unravel the roots of this phenomenon. Contributing factors include coaches' racial biases, socioeconomic status, self-isolation due to perceived obstacles, and a lack of role models. However, existing research often centers on empirical observations rather than delving into the underlying theoretical intricacies of the phenomenon.

This article seeks to illuminate the multi-layered complexity of racist stacking and the theoretical implications it carries. By doing so, it casts light on how racial prejudices subtly infiltrate sports institutions.

Expanding the discourse to Germany, the text addresses how racism intertwines with stacking, particularly within the sports sector. Racism is anchored in the belief of hierarchical categorization of humans into distinct 'races,' fueling the notion of certain races' superiority over others. These beliefs have historical roots, notably during the 18th and 19th centuries, serving to legitimize colonialism, oppression, and exploitation. Remarkably, these racist ideologies persist within modern society, residing both within individuals and institutions.

Germany, a nation with a colonial past and a history of racial policies culminating in the Holocaust, is not exempt from the presence of racism and racialization processes. Yet, public discourse and academic exploration of racism, particularly anti-Black racism, have been relatively limited until recently. Rather than centering discussions around terms like 'Black and People of Color' (BPoC) to encompass experiences of racism, conversations often gravitate towards the concept of 'migration background,' inadvertently sidelining Black experiences and perpetuating racial biases.

On the sports front, international research vividly illustrates the ubiquity of racism, particularly in the portrayal of athletes through stereotypical media depictions. Our study embarks on an exploration: whether racism finds its way into the structural fabric of Germany's sports sector via a phenomenon termed 'racist stacking.' This refers to a potential pattern where Black players are excluded from positions demanding strategic aptitude and leadership while being disproportionately clustered in roles accentuating physical prowess.

Zooming in on data from the male divisions of the first and second soccer Bundesliga in Germany for the 2020/2021 season, our study meticulously crafted playing position profiles from diverse sources. This yielded the identification of seven distinct positions: goalkeeper, center backs, wing backs, defensive center midfielder, attacking center midfielder, wingers, and striker. Based on these, our research hypotheses were formulated:

  • Black players are anticipated to be underrepresented in positions reliant on tactical skills and intelligence (goalkeeper, defensive center midfielder, attacking center midfielder).
  • Black players are expected to be overrepresented in positions highlighting physical attributes (wing backs, wingers, striker).
Our dataset, comprising 967 cases spanning 36 clubs, was painstakingly assembled using information sourced from We recorded player citizenship and primary positions, subsequently categorizing players as 'Black,' 'white,' or 'further People of Color' based on visual assessment. Acknowledging the intricate dynamics of racialization processes, we remain conscious of the limitations posed by such categorizations.

In a nutshell, our exploration delves into the intricate interplay of racism and stacking in sports, homing in on the German context. By highlighting the persistent historical grip of racist ideologies and their far-reaching influence on societal structures, we begin to unveil how these biases may potentially materialize within sports institutions. Through our study, we endeavor to unearth whether racial stereotypes play a role in determining player distributions across diverse positions in soccer.

Nobis, T., & Lazaridou, F. (2023). Racist stacking in professional soccer in germany. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 58(1), 23-42.

Photo: Soccer players by

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