Pitch-Perfect Research Illustrates Rampant Racism in Soccer

Old Trafford, home of one of the Premier League clubs, Manchester United.

Cem Kullukcu ’21 was born in Turkey but has lived in many countries around the world. The list includes Switzerland, the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland, and the Philippines.

The one thing he has found everywhere: a love for soccer, a universal way of connecting with people.

“It’s had a big impact on my life,” he said. “Given all these different cultures, it’s the one language I can communicate with others.”

Sadly, not everyone has historically been so welcoming.

Playing in a senior league soccer match outside of his native Turkey as a teenager, Kullukcu was verbally attacked by opposing fans due to the color of his skin.

“Despite there being 22 players on the field, the fans solely harassed me,” he said.

While being subbed off the field, he turned to the crowd of opposing fans and saw a parent holding a child’s hand. It was then he realized that racism was passed down from generation to generation, and the way to eliminate it was to stop it in its tracks.

Through his research paper “At a Loss for Words: Analysis of Racism and Hate Speech in Soccer Based on Fans’ Expressions on Social Media,” Kullukcu, a member of the undergraduate honors program, was able to share his experiences with the world, and bring awareness to this distressing problem through data.

The Problem in the Premier League

Kullukcu conducted his research for the project, which began in April 2019, by identifying the top 80 most-followed Premier League players on Twitter. He then analyzed all tweets directed at players’ accounts during the 2018–2019 season.

What he discovered was unfortunately what you would likely expect.

“We found Black, Asian, minority, or ethnic players are more vulnerable toward tweets containing hateful terminology,” Kullukcu said.

The Premier League has taken recent steps to eliminate this long-standing issue of racism in the game. In March 2019, it launched its No Room for Racism campaign. Following the May 2020 death of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter nameplates and patches were added to uniforms, and players take a knee before the start of every match.

Then, on April 24, the Premier League and its clubs announced it would go dark on social media over the following weekend in response to discrimination its players had received over social media.

“Racism in itself is institutional. Macro-level initiatives need to continue,” Kullukcu said. “Through education, we can begin to solve these problems.”

Analytics Without Borders

Kullukcu’s research was submitted to the sixth annual Analytics Without Borders conference last month, and placed second out of 24 projects.

“There were so many strong submissions,” said Babson College Lecturer Mike McGuirk, an Analytics Without Borders student research competition committee member. “Cem Kullukcu’s research stood out because he selected such an important and personal topic regarding racism and hate speech toward soccer players across social media channels. His research and analytic approach were flawless.”

Cem Kullukcu ’21 as a member of the Babson College men's soccer team.
Cem Kullukcu ’21 as a member of the Babson College men’s soccer team.

Kullukcu said the honor validated months of work.

“You understand that your research, which you care so much about, actually holds value and meaning,” he said. “Babson provided me with the outlet.”

“Cem did a fantastic job researching a topic which he cares about,” said Assistant Professor Babak Zafari, who also served as Kullukcu’s faculty advisor. “Looking back, I’m proud of what he accomplished.”

Kullukcu played a bit of college soccer at Babson, and though he’s no longer competing at the NCAA level, he is still finding a way to put on a show for all those watching.

“I’ve been playing football my entire life,” he said. “When you play football, you perform for a larger community—your team, family, and fans. I feel my paper is similar to a performance, something to give back to the community that has taught me so much.”

Readers can watch videos by all the Class of 2021 Babson College Honors Program participants on the 2021 Honors Project Presentations website. Congratulations to all these graduates on their impressive work!

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