March Madness: Skin in the Game

In this thought provoking article, Britta Livengood of Future First Education (FFE) encourages us to evaluate the implicit bias in the way many of our kids' heroes (aka, pro basketball players) are portrayed by the media. To learn more about what's going on in FFE, check out the rest of the newsletter here.




As March approaches so does the annual NCAA March Madness competition between 68 college basketball teams. Brackets are created, and the conversations among students about their favorite teams begin as well. Students watch teams get picked off one by one, calculating the wins and losses on their brackets. It’s narrowed down to the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, the Final Four and then the final championship game.


While students watch the games they also hear commentary from announcers. They mainly discuss the plays as well the skills and abilities players demonstrate. These comments can play a huge role in how students view the players.


In 2019, Steven L. Foy and Rashawn Ray decided to take a closer look at comments being made during games based on individual players’ skin color. Foy and Ray collected data from 54 NCAA basketball tournament games from 2000-2010. They watched videos, transcribed audio of in-game announcers, and coded every comment about each player, during each game. They sorted nearly 2,700 comments according to performance, physical attributes, and mental characteristics of players.


Foy and Ray then collected pictures of each of the over 400 players from the rosters and placed them into five skin-tone quintiles (as shown in the graph to the right).



After analyzing the data it became clear that stereotypes about skin tone and race play a significant role in how commentators describe players during games.


The data showed that lighter-skinned players were typically credited for their performance (shooting, rebounding, steals) as well as their mental abilities and “strategic thinking” in the game (craftiness, cleverness, control of the ball). Darker skinned players were more likely to be described for their physical characteristics (athleticism, speed, strength). Commentators often credited the size and height of darker-skinned players for their plays, instead of the players themselves for any type of mental strategy they may have used.


The implications of light-skinned players having a more strategic, logical game play and dark-skinned players having a more physical, athletic one has significant ramifications. Professional NBA teams want players who can think strategically while also having strong physical abilities. If only one of those attributes is being represented, some players may be overlooked.


This could also have a negative effect on students who watch these tournaments every year. Darker skinned students may believe the only way they can be a proficient athlete is based on physical abilities instead of how crafty, clever and in control they are. White students may erroneously learn to view players of color as entertainers who shouldn't do or say anything that could potentially make spectators uncomfortable.


As teachers, where do we go from here?


  1. Continually encourage students on their mental and strategic abilities, in and out of the classroom.

  2. Instead of praising students on grades, praise them for the progress they made.

  3. Pick Black athletes and explain how they used some form of strategic thinking, even if commentators didn’t mention it.

  4. Explain to students how much math and science are used in a basketball game (e.g. calculating distance on the court, work vs. not work, kinetic and potential energy), and how much of a mental game basketball really is for players.

  5. For an English lesson, allow students to do their own commentary for a basketball game, giving them specific vocabulary to use (e.g. craftiness, sagacious, erudite), encouraging them to note strategic game play.

Stereotypes about white physical inferiority and Black intellectual inferiority are pervasive in 21st-century America. With the amount of viewers that March Madness receives we need to address implicit biases, especially for our darker-skinned students who we know are worth more than just their physical stature.


Sources: Foy, Steven and Rashawn Ray. 2019. “Skin in the Game: Colorism and the Subtle Operation of Racial Stereotypes in Men’s College Basketball.” American Journal of Sociology 125(3): 730-785. https:// www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/707243#_i1

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