Where Social Discrimination Is the Name of the Game

Player watches hockey game
In some cases, it seems, determining who is on your team starts well before someone puts on a uniform. (Photo: Rudy and Peter Skitterians /Pixabay)

When I moved to Zürich for my PhD, I contacted several local hockey clubs. I started playing hockey when I was 5 years old and it was an easy way for me to get to know friends in new places. I had found friends in a similar way before in the Netherlands, Australia, and the US.

In Zürich, only one of the two clubs I contacted responded. I wondered why the other clubs ignored my email – it was less competitive than the club that responded, in a worse area, and I had written exactly the same text. I got the idea that maybe, only maybe, it was related to my background. I had written in my email that I had moved from Germany to Switzerland. Surely, that couldn’t be the reason. Amateur sports clubs have no incentive to decline new players. On the contrary, players are necessary for the clubs’ survival as they have to pay an annual fee and provide the lifeblood of the clubs. But what if some clubs harmed their own interests and discriminated against foreigners?

This is how our research regarding “social discrimination” started. We wanted to test if people with foreign-sounding names received fewer responses when asking for a trial practice. In this context, the trial practice essentially represents the possibility for a newcomer to enter a new social network. We wrote emails to all amateur football clubs (hockey is not that popular in Europe) in Switzerland and recorded their response.

The results showed that people with foreign-sounding names were 10 percent less likely to get an invitation. The results were interesting and novel but when I presented the published paper at a conference in Spain someone asked a question that really made me think: “10 percent – is that a lot? Is that a little?” I didn’t know if it was a lot or a little. How could I respond? We had nothing to compare our results with. I thought, however, that it was crucial to understand and interpret our results.

You can find the academic paper for the European experiment here in the journal Humanities and Social Science Communications.

That was a painstaking revelation. The research project with amateur football clubs in Switzerland was incredibly time consuming. For a comprehensive comparison we had to repeat the experiment not in one but in several countries. I dreaded the prospect of repeating the project in several countries. Almost out of nowhere our research group received funding that allowed us to repeat the project on a large scale. We had enough funds to work with research assistants from countries all over Europe.

We repeated the experiment in 22 European countries (we could not include some countries because of a lack of observations). The results are interesting For example, while some countries had similar average response rates, their response rates towards people with foreign-sounding names really differed. For example, Belgium, Austria, and Hungary had a similar response rate around 55 percent, but in Belgium discrimination was around 7.5 percent but in Austria and Hungary around 20 percent. Additionally, discrimination was neither clustered in large countries (for example, 3.57 percent in France compared to 13.26 percent in Germany) nor in geographically closely located countries (for example, 3.98 percent in Portugal compared to 13.23 percent in Spain).

Detecting and comparing discrimination between countries in this context is important, but it is only the first step. Now, our research group is trying to find ways to minimize the gap between individuals with native- and foreign-sounding names. In previous research we found that persistent individuals, individuals that contact a club again after not receiving a response, decrease the gap. In an ongoing research project in collaboration with a national football federation, we try to inform respondents about the benefits of having a diverse team.

Unfortunately, our results are limited to European countries and the sample only include male teams. We hope that future research finds ways to examine social discrimination outside Europe – not necessarily with football but maybe with a sport that the researchers deem appropriate. Maybe rugby in New Zealand? Or cricket in Pakistan?

Finally, my own experience was invaluable for our field experiments. Remember the second hockey club in Zürich that never responded? Before I left the University of Zürich I decided to clean my spam folder – in there I found a very friendly but 3-year-old invitation for a trial practice.

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Cornel Maria Nesseler

Cornel Maria Nesseler is a postdoctoral fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology Business School. His research focuses on sports economics and field experiments.

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