Commentators fear they will be branded racist due to banned words

Commentators fear they will be branded racist with a new list of banned words making some feel like they have to ‘walk on eggshells’

  • Some commentators fear they will be caught up in race controversy this season
  • They have received new instructions on language they should now be avoiding 
  • Words and phrases including ‘cakewalk’ and ‘nitty gritty’ have been prohibited
  • A total of 450 people had taken part in last week’s ‘avoiding racial bias’ session 

Some commentators feel they are ‘walking on eggshells’ and risk being caught up in a race controversy after receiving new instructions on language they should avoid.

All major broadcasters put commentators through an ‘avoiding racial bias’ training session last week, with words and phrases including ‘cakewalk’, ‘nitty gritty’, ‘sold down the river’ and ‘uppity’ among those prohibited.

Details of the online meeting led one experienced former commentator to reflect that ‘he would not want to be in the business now’, while another currently working at games said he feared ‘fingers being pointed’ and a logistical minefield, as mental calculations are impossible when calling games. 

Some commentators feared being dragged into a race war due to a new list of banned words

The news that a number of phrases have racist origins surprised some. But instructions that describing a player as having ‘pace and power’ could be a form of racial stereotyping are also seen as challenging.

The commentator, who was at last week’s online training session, said: ‘No one is trying to offend anyone but it becomes very difficult. I think back to one game last season when I described a BAME player as very powerful because that’s what I saw. Of course you want to ensure that you are not causing offence and reflecting a diverse audience when you commentate. But this does feel like you’re walking on eggshells.’

Seb Hutchinson, who became the first black commentator to call a game for the Premier League’s international television feed last season, said that there was no problem describing ‘pace and power’ as long as it is put into the context of a player’s other attributes and that the new guidelines should not be used as a stick to beat colleagues.

All major broadcasters put commentators through an ‘avoiding racial bias’ training session


All of the copy below has been taken from the BBC’s Avoiding Racial Bias guide, as seen by Sportsmail:

CAKEWALK – The cakewalk originated as a dance performed by enslaved black people on plantations before the American Civil War. Owners held contests in which slaves competed for a cake.

Alternatives – ‘this is turning into a breeze, a walk in the park…’

NITTY GRITTY – Thought to refer to the detritus found in the bottom of boats once a shipment of slaves had been removed from the hold. The ‘nit’ refers to a parasitic insect – the ‘grits’ are the grain which would have been used as a cheap foodstuff to keep a slave ship’s cargo barely fed.

Alternatives – ‘the basic facts’, ‘the most important aspects or practical details’, ‘the key parts or substance’

SOLD DOWN THE RIVER – In the 19th century, black slaves were literally sold down the river to plantation owners further south where brutal conditions awaited. The use of that phrase in a sporting context waters down that association it has with slavery.

Alternatives – ‘that back pass left the keeper with no chance’, ‘put the keeper in an impossible position’

UPPITY – A word used by white people during racial segregation in the USA to describe black people they believed weren’t showing them enough deference. Black men and women were lynched by white mobs for seeming ‘too uppity’.

Alternatives – ‘agitated’, ‘chirpy’, ‘jumpy’, ‘uptight’, ‘troubled’, ‘perturbed’, ‘het up’


Ask yourself now what the reaction might be to words/phrases like ‘blackballed’, ‘blacklist’, ‘black mark’, ‘whiter than white’? Can you understand why someone might associate black = bad, white = good?

There are alternatives:

BLACKBALLED/BLACKLISTED – rejected, shunned, excluded, barred, snubbed.

BLACK MARK – his reputation has been tainted/tarnished, he has a blot on his reputation.

WHITER THAN WHITE – beyond reproach, spotless, unblemished, immaculate, impeccable.

Hutchinson, who also commentates for ITV and BT Sport, said: ‘The words themselves are not bad. It is using them as a defining reason for them being top players. It is uninformed to say someone is just pace and power as it detracts from everything else it took to reach that point: determination, focus, all sorts of things that can help guide you down a path. You don’t reach the highest level just by being fast and strong.’

Even if the ‘pace and power’ attributes are used more generally, others must not rush to judgment, Hutchinson insisted. He said: ‘It doesn’t necessarily make that person a racist or a bad person. We are all just a product of our time, our background, our education, our life experience. I don’t think people should be called out for saying something when the intention of most commentators is never to do that. I think it should be used as another piece of arsenal for them to do their job in the best way that they can.’

A total of 450 people took part in last week’s session, with the BBC inviting Sky Sports, ITV, BT Sport, Premier League Productions and talkSPORT to register. BT pundit Rio Ferdinand, who was among several speakers, is thought to have asked broadcasters to prepare for commentary by considering attributes other than pace and power.

The BBC had held the training session with 450 people from different companies last week

Notes to take away from the training session included information on the derivation of words to be avoided and recommended additional reading and listening, This included the book, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’, by Reni Eddo-Lodge.

The notes stated: ‘Is there a danger of spreading a perception that black players’ success is purely based on their athleticism and doesn’t require hard work and intelligence?

‘Do you need to spend more time thinking about how to explain the variety of reasons for a black player’s success?’

Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, Wolves’ Adama Traore and West Ham’s Michail Antonio were all listed as examples of those who have been defined by these attributes.

Sadio Mane (above) was among the footballers named with people warned about spreading a perception that black players’ success is purely based on their athleticism

The session followed research by the RunRepeat website, in association with the PFA, showing that ‘deep-rooted racial stereotypes’ were being promoted in football commentary. The website transcribed commentary from 80 games across the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and the French Ligue 1. A director of RunRepeat, Danny McLoughlin, also spoke at Tuesday’s webinar.

One former commentator said the current climate is a minefield. He said: ‘I wouldn’t want to be in the business now. It’s become very difficult and I don’t know I would be able to deal with it. It’s very difficult in the heat of the moment to describe, while avoiding words that you would never associate with causing offence.’

But Hutchinson said: ‘There is a fear among people that they don’t want to lose their job or be perceived as racist, especially in the ‘cancel culture’. But from a personal view, you have to just believe in a system and believe that people you know and your employers know who you are and what you are about. Trust in yourself.

‘You should never be scared of what you are going to say. If someone tells you what a word means, something is wrong with you if you feel like you still want to use that phrase. Why on earth would you want to keep using it?’

The BBC invited Sky, ITV, BT Sport, Premier League production and talkSPORT to the session

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