(Not) being granted the right
to belong—Amateur football
clubs in Germany
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany
University of Zurich, Switzerland
Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway
University of Zurich, Switzerland
Empirical studies show that ﬁrst- and second-generation immigrants are less likely to be members
of sports clubs than their non-immigrant peers. Common explanations are cultural differences and
socioeconomic disadvantages. However, lower participation rates in amateur sport could be at
least partly due to ethnic discrimination. Are minority ethnic groups granted the same right to
belong as their non-immigrant peers? To answer this question, this paper uses publicly available
data from a ﬁeld experiment in which mock applications were sent out to over 1,600 football
clubs in Germany. Having a foreign-sounding name signiﬁcantly reduces the likelihood of being
invited to participate. The paper concludes that amateur football clubs are not as permeable as
they are often perceived to be. It claims that traditional explanations for lower participation
rates of immigrants need to be revisited.
amateur football, belonging, migration, sports clubs, ﬁeld experiment, discrimination
Tina Nobis, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research, Unter den
Linden 6, Berlin, 10099, Germany.
Original Research Article
International Review for the
Sociology of Sport
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
As this article focusses on the topic of sport in immigrant societies, it touches upon a
subject that has been well researched within the past two decades. Numerous sport socio-
logical works focus on ﬁrst- and second-generation immigrants, on other speciﬁc immi-
grant groups (e.g. refugees) or on “minority ethnic groups”–a term which is often
employed to refer to individuals who do not share a given or an ascribed attribute (e.g.
religion, race, citizenship) with the majority population. With speciﬁc regard to the
European discourse, the narrative usually follows the thread of what Coakley (2015)
has called the great sport myth and with which he describes the “pervasive and nearly
unshakable belief in the inherent purity and goodness of sport”(p. 403). Research
about sport in immigrant societies often starts with the assumption that sports clubs
have considerable potential for integration because they are formally open to everybody.
Thus, sports cubs could, potentially, offer good grounds for common activities for all
population groups. These assumptions often refer to theories of integration and lead to
empirical surveys about who participates in sports clubs and how members can beneﬁt
from sport activities (Adler Zwahlen et al., 2018; Makarova and Herzog, 2014;
Seippel, 2005; Smith et al., 2019; Spaaij and Broerse, 2019; Stura, 2019; Theeboom
et al., 2012; Walseth, 2006; Walseth and Fasting, 2004).
Empirical studies of participation in sports clubs, however, overwhelmingly show that
ﬁrst- and second-generation immigrants, people from refugee backgrounds and other
marginalized groups (e.g. Black and minority ethnic groups) are less likely to be
members than their peers (Elling and Claringbould, 2005; Feiler and Breuer, 2020;
Higgins and Dale, 2013; Makarova and Herzog, 2014; Nielsen et al., 2013; van
Haaften, 2019). While these ﬁndings might raise questions about potential discrimination
in sport and thus conquer the great sport myth or the assumption about the integrative
potential of sport, they seldom do so. Instead, common explanations for the lower parti-
cipation rates of immigrants and minority ethnic groups include cultural differences,
socioeconomic disadvantages, different leisure preferences, and self-exclusion
(Burrmann et al., 2017; Higgins and Dale, 2013; Kleindienst-Cachay, 2007; Mutz and
Burrmann, 2015; Nielsen et al., 2013; Spaaij, 2012; van Haaften, 2019).
Even though the most common theme in recent publications refers to integration or
inclusion, we are not suggesting that exclusion, discrimination, and racism in sport
have not been researched at all (for a detailed literatue review, see Spaaij et al., 2019;
for a thorough discussion of the integration theme, see Agergaard, 2018). Several
studies that focus on different minorities demonstrate that people of color, people from
minority backgrounds and individuals of African origin are underrepresented in
leading positions of sports organisations in European countries and the U.S.
(Bradbury, 2013; Heim et al., 2021; Hylton, 2018; Lapchick, 2021). Qualitative
studies show that sport can “expose participants to social exclusion, racism and cultural
resistance”(Spaaij, 2015: 304) and that refugees, Black athletes and minority ethnic
groups may experience discrimination, microaggressions, othering, or assimilation pres-
sure in sports clubs (Burdsey, 2011; Engh et al., 2017; Massao and Fasting, 2014; Spaaij,
2012). Furthermore, some publications focus on how a sports club’s culture can evoke the
exclusion of minorities (Michelini et al., 2018; Seiberth, 2012). However, we mostly ﬁnd
2International Review for the Sociology of Sport 0(0)
qualitative studies that concentrate on experiences of discrimination after minority groups
have already joined a sports club. If and how participation rates in sports clubs are
affected by discrimination and exclusion has not been studied in detail; consequently,
empirical data illustrating how access to sports clubs can be denied is still missing.
In this article, access to sports clubs is analysed from the perspective of exclusion.
Instead of asking why minority ethnic groups do not wish to participate in recreational
sports clubs and instead of using sports club membership as an indicator for integration,
the authors ask if immigrants who wish to participate are being granted the right to do so
as non-immigrants. To that end, this paper refers to the theoretical concept of belonging.
Other than theories of integration, this framework can help to understand that the lower
sport participation of immigrants does not necessarily point to integration deﬁcits
amongst immigrants but that it can also be regarded as a matter of not being granted
the right to belong by sports clubs.
Consequently, this paper applies a different methodological approach than the one that
has often been used in the past. Instead of using survey data, we will use publicly avail-
able data from a ﬁeld experiment approach in which individuals with foreign-sounding
names stated a desire to join an amateur football club (Gomez-Gonzalez et al., 2021;
Nesseler et al., 2019). With this approach, we can test causal relationships between
being invited to a training session and signing the respective e-mail with a foreign-
sounding name. Similar designs have been used to demonstrate that religious minorities
and those who are perceived as foreign face discrimination when trying to access domains
like the labour market (Bertrand and Mullainathan, 2004; Quillian et al., 2017; Riach and
Rich, 2003; Thijssen et al., 2021; Zschirnt and Ruedin, 2016), housing (Auspurg et al.,
2019; Diehl et al., 2013; Sawert, 2020), shopping (Bourabain and Verhaeghe, 2019),
car riding (Liebe and Beyer, 2021), and the sharing economy (Edelman et al., 2017).
However, the ﬁeld of sport has not been deeply investigated in this way.
This paper focuses on one country—Germany. The German case is of speciﬁc interest
with regard to the question addressed in this article. First, Germany can be described as an
immigrant society, as approximately 26% of the population are ﬁrst- or second-
generation immigrants (Fachkommission der Bundesregierung zu den
Rahmenbedingungen der Integrationsfähigkeit, 2020). Second, it is a country in which
sports clubs are a relevant setting for sport activities, as about 27 million people are regis-
tered in approximately 88,000 sport clubs (Deutscher Olympischer Sportbund, 2020).
Furthermore, content analyses have shown that the German discourse usually follows
the assumption that sports clubs bear integrative potentials for immigrants, whereas dis-
crimination and exclusion in sport remains a highly understudied topic (Nobis and
El-Kayed, accepted). Interestingly, research has also shown that immigrants are less
likely to be members of a sports club on the one hand, but that this does not hold true
for male adolescents on the other hand. Reliable data for adolescents shows that male
immigrants participate at equal levels in sports clubs as male non-immigrants (Nobis
and El-Kayed, 2019). This is of speciﬁc interest for this article. If the data of the ﬁeld
experiment shows that male immigrants experience discrimination when trying to
access a sports club, it also raises the question of whether equal participation rates can
and should be regarded as an indicator for the absence of discrimination and inequality
in future research (Elling and Claringbould, 2005).
Nobis et al. 3
The remainder of this paper is organized as follows. The next section introduces the
concept of “belonging”to explain theoretically how access to a club can be granted or
denied. As we use data from a ﬁeld experiment performed by Gomez-Gonzalez et al.
(2021), we describe the research design and methods of the study, and present the empir-
ical ﬁndings. They show that individuals with foreign-sounding names are not granted the
same rights to belong to a sports club as individuals with German-sounding names.
Finally, we discuss the results and conclude the paper.
Sports clubs and the politics of belonging
This article does not use integration as a theoretical frame when addressing the topic of
sport in immigrant societies. We do not frame membership in sports clubs as an indicator
of integration or ask how well immigrants have assimilated to mainstream sports culture.
Rather, we approach the topic from a different theoretical perspective. We use the concept
of belonging. This is especially helpful in understanding the logic and processes of inclu-
sion and of exclusion in clubs. It shows how the formal openness of associations can be
restricted by certain politics of belonging.
Amateur sports clubs can be deﬁned as voluntary associations that are part of the “third
sector.”The third sector differs from the state (ﬁrst) and market (second) sectors, as well
as from the informal, private sphere. Like other voluntary associations—but unlike orga-
nizations in the market sector—amateur sports clubs have a non-proﬁt constraint. They
rely on the principle of open and voluntary membership, meaning that everyone can
become a member, but no one is obliged to do so (unlike state institutions such as
schools). Amateur sports clubs pursue the goal of producing and providing “goods”—
namely, sport offerings—for which participants usually pay a membership fee. Sports
clubs are often described as “prosumer”organizations: relying on the principle of demo-
cratic self-organization, members voluntary engage to provide club goods (Baur and
Braun, 2003; Etzioni, 1973; Heinemann and Horch, 1988).
In Germany, amateur sports clubs are the most popular voluntary association.
According to the German Olympic Sport Federation, some 27 million people are regis-
tered in 88,000 clubs, of which more than 24,000 are devoted to football (Deutscher
Olympischer Sportbund, 2020). However, empirical studies show that members of
sports clubs do not come equally from all parts of the population. Women, older
adults and low wage earners are less likely to be members of clubs or volunteers
(Hartmann-Tews, 2006; Haut and Emrich, 2011; Nobis and El-Kayed, 2019; Wicker
et al., 2020). Furthermore, the following ﬁndings are often cited: (a) the underrepresenta-
tion of ﬁrst- and second-generation immigrants in sports clubs is more prevalent in female
than in male sports; (b) immigrant male adolescents report membership in clubs just as
much as their non-immigrants peers; (c) participation rates of ﬁrst- and second-generation
immigrants are higher in football and martial arts than in other sports; and (d) other sport
activities (e.g. extra-curricular activities at school, ﬁtness studios, informal settings) are
less selective than clubs. (e) Additionally, recent research shows that male adolescent
immigrants with a Turkish background are more likely to be a member of sports clubs
than their non-immigrant peers. However, male adolescents with a Polish background
are slightly underrepresented. Older data suggests that male adolescents with an Italian
4International Review for the Sociology of Sport 0(0)
background are equally involved in sports clubs as male non-immigrants (Feiler and
Breuer, 2020; Fussan and Nobis, 2007; Mutz and Burrmann, 2015).
The lower sport participation rate of immigrants is normally framed as a matter of
“social integration”; indeed, many academics focus on cultural differences to explain dif-
ferences in participation (Nobis and El-Kayed, accepted). To this we raise the following
challenge: What if lower participation rates of immigrants tell us less about their integra-
tion deﬁcits, and more about discrimination against them, such that they are excluded
Belonging and the politics of belonging. As mentioned earlier, a useful theoretical construct
here is the concept of belonging. Nira Yuval-Davis (2006, 2011) in particular has pointed
out that “it is important to differentiate between belonging and the politics of belonging”
(Yuval-Davis, 2011: 10) on an analytical level.
Belonging describes the dynamic emotional attachment with social and/or geograph-
ical locations. It is ﬁnding a space of “familiarity, comfort, security, and emotional attach-
ment”(Antonsich, 2010: 464; see also Yuval-Davis, 2006). Belonging is
multidimensional, as individuals can belong to different social locations that may
change over time. Gender, class, nation, and kinship can be reference points of belonging.
Equally, clubs, associations, families, and even street gangs can be reference points
(Pfaff-Czarnecka, 2013; Yuval-Davis, 2006).
In today’s world, (1) people can simultaneously belong to two or more countries; they can
combine different professions or even religions; (2) they can change belonging while going
through different stages in life—changing age groups and passing through different stages of
status. (3) There is a situational multiplicity—when people divide their time between home,
school, friends, hobby club, or religious organisation. (4) There are also diverse horizons of
belonging: family, ethnic group, nation-state, and the world—and these horizons can coexist
in a mode full of tensions (Pfaff-Czarnecka, 2013: 22).
How do individuals develop a sense of belonging? Pfaff-Czarnecka (2013) suggests
that belonging is experienced through “identiﬁcation, embeddedness, connectedness
and attachments”(p. 13). Hage (2002) understands belonging as the “combined result
of trust, feeling safe, community, and the sense of possibility”(cited by
Pfaff-Czarnecka, 2013: 13). Yuval-Davis (2006) claims that belonging is constructed
on three levels: social locations, emotional attachments, and ethical and political
values. According to Mecheril (2018), belonging comprises three elements: membership,
efﬁcacy, and attachment. Membership refers to formal regulations about who belongs and
who does not (e.g. citizenship or residence permits) and to informal practices of being
recognized as a member by signiﬁcant others. Efﬁcacy refers to the possibility of partici-
pating effectively in a social entity. Attachment encompasses emotional bonding, moral
obligations, familiarity, and connectedness.
While some authors primarily focus on the micro-level of belonging (Pfaff-Czarnecka,
2013), others point out that analyses should equally consider how individuals are granted
the right to belong (Antonsich, 2010; Wood and Waite, 2011; Yuval-Davis, 2006).
Belonging is not just a matter of an individual’s choice, but is strongly related to being
Nobis et al. 5
recognized and understood (Wood and Waite, 2011). Consequently, belonging should be
analysed both as a “personal, intimate, feeling of being ‘at home’in a place (place-
belongingness) and as a discursive resource that constructs, claims, justiﬁes, or resists
forms of socio-spatial inclusion/exclusion (politics of belonging)”(Antonsich, 2010:
644). Such a multilevel approach—embodying Nira Yuval-Davis’s distinction between
belonging and the politics of belonging—considers practices of inclusion/exclusion
simultaneously on a micro- and on a meso/macro-level. It thereby avoids the trap of
what Antonsich (2010) describes as either a “socially de-contextualized individualism
or an all-encompassing social(izing) discourse”(p. 644).
The politics of belonging involve the construction and the maintenance of boundaries
by hegemonic powers, as well as “the inclusion or exclusion of particular people, social
categories and groupings within these boundaries by those who have the power to do
this”(Yuval-Davis, 2011: 18). Crowley (1999: 30) referred to the politics of belonging
as the “dirty work”of boundary maintenance. Using the metaphor of a night club
where many queue up but only a few are granted entry, Crowley pointed out that the pol-
itics of belonging are a matter of boundary-making and of separating us from them
(Yuval-Davis, 2006). Yuval-Davis’s (2006) reference to Crowley underlines her point
that the politics of belonging also include struggles about what is required from a
person to belong (Lenneis and Agergaard, 2018). However, the requirements for belong-
ing can constitute more or less permeable boundaries. Common descent is probably the
most racialized and least permeable requisite, whereas “using a common set of values,
such as ‘democracy’or ‘human rights’, as the signiﬁers of belonging can be seen as
having the most permeable boundaries of all”(Yuval-Davis, 2006: 209).
We emphasize that being granted the right to belong does not rely only on gatekeepers’
decisions. The metaphor of the gatekeeper helps express how formal membership can be
granted or denied. However, it is important to note that other practices of organizations
can also be mechanisms for granting or denying belonging. Mecheril (2018), for
example, argues that “anticipated denial”of belonging needs to be taken into consider-
ation as well. Other authors stress that certain practices in an organization’s culture
can lead to exclusion and make it more or less likely that emotional attachments
develop. Examples of how belonging can be denied include lack of representation, stereo-
typing, assimilation pressure, and micro-aggressions (e.g. telling racist or sexist jokes)
(Bradbury, 2013; Burdsey, 2011; Elling and Claringbould, 2005; Fletcher and
Spracklen, 2014; Seiberth et al., 2013). On the other hand, creating a positive, welcoming
environment can have a powerful effect on enabling a sense of belonging (Doidge et al.,
Transferring the concept of belonging to research on amateur sports clubs. The concept of
belonging has also been used in the sociology of sport. Academics have studied how spe-
ciﬁc sports, sports clubs or so called ethnic-speciﬁc teams (Fletcher and Walle, 2015)
become reference points of identiﬁcation and belonging, how requirements of belonging
and symbolic boundaries in speciﬁc sports may change once players from minority ethnic
backgrounds enter the game, how feelings of belonging are developed in different sports
settings, and, at least to some extent, how sport and belonging are negotiated in public
and political discourse (Burdsey, 2015, 2016; Fletcher and Walle, 2015; Lenneis and
6International Review for the Sociology of Sport 0(0)
Agergaard, 2018; Spracklen, 2007; Spracklen and Spracklen, 2008; Walle, 2013). They
have shown that joining a sports club or a team can create feelings of belonging
(Burrmann et al., 2017; Lenneis et al., 2020; Walseth, 2006); that “ethnic-speciﬁc”
teams and leagues can provide “an escape from everyday racism”(Fletcher and
Walle, 2015: 236); that clubs can be “second families”for refugee youth (Spaaij,
2015); and that they can be a site for socialization experiences that may “cultivate
a sense of belonging and reduce social isolation”(Spaaij, 2012: 1520; also see
Doidge et al., 2020).
Scholars have also investigated how the development of belonging is associated with
the politics of belonging: for example, how belonging is associated with an organization’s
culture (Burrmann et al., 2017; Doidge et al., 2020; Fletcher and Spracklen, 2014), with a
speciﬁc policy of ensuring a safe space for marginalized groups (Lenneis et al., 2020), or
with public discourse. This research shows that different marginalized groups (e.g. Black
players, British Asian players in the UK, minority ethnic players) don’t necessarily
develop a sense of belonging once they have joined a sports club but that sport can
“provide places for belonging and exclusion”(Spracklen and Spracklen, 2008: 215;
also see Ratna, 2010). Clubs can also be sites for “the reproduction of white heterosexu-
ality”(Adjepong, 2017: 218), of marginalization, of exclusion and of assimilation pres-
sure—for example when belonging and acceptance are—as Spracklen and Spracklen
(2008) have shown for minority ethnic rugby players in the north of England—bound
to demonstrate “the ability to embrace a working-class, northern culture of whiteness”
(p. 215; also see Burdsey, 2011; Engh et al., 2017; Fletcher and Spracklen, 2014;
Massao and Fasting, 2014; Ratna, 2010, 2013; Spracklen, 2007).
Consequently, we are neither the ﬁrst to address the topic of sport and belonging nor
are we the ﬁrst to address exclusion or discrimination in sport. However, most of the
research that has been conducted so far is qualitative; it tends to focus on processes of
exclusion and discrimination that appear after immigrants or other marginalized
groups have become members of a club. The present study is different because we
have chosen an earlier starting point: how permeable are the borders of a sports club
in the ﬁrst place? We assume that lower membership rates of ﬁrst- and second-generation
immigrants might, in part, be related to the aforementioned “dirty works”of boundary
maintenance. By denying access to sports clubs, gatekeepers do not necessarily follow
ofﬁcial guidance: they may decide to grant access based on common descent, race, or citi-
zenship, and may thus contribute to the rather opaque policies of boundary-keeping.
Assuming that membership often starts with a request for participation in a practice
session, we can thus operationally deﬁne the gatekeepers as those who reply to such
requests. In most cases, these are coaches, managers, or administrative employees of
the sports clubs.
Research design and methods
We use the publicly available data from a ﬁeld experiment performed by
Gomez-Gonzalez et al. (2021) to discuss in detail the implications for Germany.
The experiment was set up as follows. First, information was gathered about 1,681
amateur football clubs with male teams in Germany that compete in leagues with no
Nobis et al. 7
restrictions on foreign players. For each club, contact email addresses were identiﬁed;
usually these were for the coach or an administrator. If a club had more than one
team, one was randomly selected to avoid suspicion that could stem from receiving
several emails with the same purpose at the same time. Focusing exclusively on male
sports clubs is a shortcoming of the study. Figure 1 shows the distribution of the clubs.
Second, mock applications were sent to each of the 1,681 clubs from fake gmail.com
accounts. The accounts were associated with typical foreign- and German-sounding
names. The German-sounding names were Philipp Fischer, Daniel Müller, Maximilian
Schmidt, Lukas Schneider, and Christian Weber. The foreign-sounding names were
either Turkish (Mehmet Çelik, Mustafa Şahin), Polish (Jakub Kamin
Wiśniewski), or Italian (Andrea Bianchi, Francesco Esposito), as these are the three
largest foreign groups in Germany (Eurostat, 2019).
Block-randomization was used at the state level, meaning that every name and every
group was equally distributed within Germany (see Figure 1). In their email to the
coach, the ﬁctitious men asked whether it was possible to join a training session. The
email, in grammatical German, was identical for all clubs: only the name of the reques-
ter differed. The identity of the applicant could therefore be inferred only from the
name. Recipients of the email saw the name of the applicant twice: in the proﬁle
name and in the signature at the end of the message. Translated into English, the text
of the email was as follows:
Figure 1. German amatuer football clubs and group name.
8International Review for the Sociology of Sport 0(0)
Subject: Trial practice
I would like to take part in a trial training session with your team. I have already
played at a similar level. Could I come for a trial training session?
In total, 836 emails were sent with a German-sounding and 845 with a foreign-sounding
name. Of the foreign-sounding names, 281 were Turkish, 282 Italian, and 282 Polish.
Responses from the coach (or administrator) were categorized as follows: (1) no
response or rejection, (2) positive response, or (3) positive response with inquiries. We
follow similar empirical ﬁeld experimental papers that classify “no response”as a rejection
(Agan and Starr, 2018; Barach and Horton, 2021; Edelman et al., 2017; Sawert, 2020). In
the third category, additional questions related to playing position, experience, or previous
clubs. To simplify the analysis, Categories 2 and 3 were combined. Thus, we used a binary
dependent variable: no response or rejection (0) versus positive response (1).
The ﬁeld experiment by Gomez-Gonzalez et al. (2021) received ethical approval from
the University of Zurich (IRB approval #2019–006). Although deception is a necessary
part of the design, it is minimized because the researchers immediately sent an email back
to the respondents to the effect, “Thank you, but I’m no longer interested in playing.”
Thus, respondents invest very little time in the non-existent individual. If respondents
knew that the individual who applied does not exist, they would have no incentive to
When requesting a trial practice, 559 of 836 (66.9%) of the emails signed with
German-sounding names received positive responses, compared to 453 of 845 (53.6%)
emails signed with foreign-sounding names. Figure 2 shows the differences in types of
response by group.
As mentioned, the mean positive response rate was 66.86% for German-sounding
names, 53.61% for foreign-sounding ones (average treatment effect =0.133;
Mann-Whitney U, z =−5.55, p =0.00, N =1681). Table 1 shows the regression
results for this signiﬁcant difference (Model 1). Turkish-sounding names had a response
rate of 55.16%, Italian-sounding 50.35%, and Polish-sounding 55.32%; differences
between groups were not signiﬁcant (Table 1, Model 2).
In randomized ﬁeld experiments, control variables are expected to be uncorrelated
with the independent variable of interest, and thus including them should not bias the esti-
mates (Gerber and Green, 2008). This means that additional control variables should
neither modify the sign nor the signiﬁcance level of the effect of foreign names on
response rate. To test whether the random assignment was successful, some control vari-
ables were included that might inﬂuence the dependent variable.
Conﬂict theory provides a solid ground to explore the relationship between ethnic
diversity (e.g. net migration) and social outcomes (Putnam, 2007). Consequently, we
included the number of inhabitants living in the area to control for differences between
Nobis et al. 9
Figure 2. Differences in the type of response for foreign and native names.
Table 1. Ordinary least squares regression results by name group with additional controls.
Dependent variable: Response (0 =No/1 =Yes)
Variables Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
German-sounding names 0.133***
Foreign-sounding names omitted
Turkish-sounding names omitted omitted omitted
Italian-sounding names −0.048
Polish-sounding names 0.002
Net migration 0.005
Local district population / 10,000 0.001*
Share of right-wing votes 0.002
League ﬁxed effects Yes Yes
Observations 1,681 1,681 1,497 1,497
Adj. R-squared 0.018 0.018 0.027 0.029
Note: Robust standard errors in parentheses.
***p < 0.01, **p < 0.05, *p < 0.1.
10 International Review for the Sociology of Sport 0(0)
rural and urban settings (Musterd and Ostendorf, 2013). Right-wing ideologies may inﬂu-
ence level of discrimination against immigrants (Bale, 2008; Helbling et al., 2010), so we
controlled for share of right-wing votes in the previous elections. Finally, because
discrimination may be less in higher leagues due to stronger competitive pressure,
league ﬁxed effects were included to control for differences between leagues
The inclusion of these control variables leads to a small drop in the number of
observations due to missing data. Table 1 reports the main results for the limited
sample of Model 3 and the complete results with additional control variables of
Model 4. We observe that the negative effect of having a foreign-sounding name
remains unchanged. All control variables are insigniﬁcant with the exception of
larger populations, which have a positive inﬂuence on the response rate that is signif-
icant at the 10% level.
The experiment showed that requests from German-sounding proﬁles received sig-
niﬁcantly more positive responses than from foreign-sounding ones. The response
rates indicate that the scenario enacted by the experimental set-up is consistent
with social reality: asking for participation in a training session via email is not
the only way to initiate membership, but it is a very common way. We suggest
that the response rate would have been far lower if this procedure were not part of
aclub’s normal practice.
Although participation in sports clubs is expected to contribute to a sense of belonging
(Burrmann et al., 2017; Spaaij, 2015; Walseth, 2006), our research indicates that indivi-
duals who are perceived as immigrants do not receive the same chance to beneﬁt. The
present ﬁndings support the theoretical assumption that belonging is not an individual
choice alone, but depends also on being granted the right to belong. Belonging requires
the desire for participation on the part of the minority and the acceptance of participation
on the part of the majority (Ward et al., 2001; Wood and Waite, 2011; Yuval-Davis,
2006). Both are required.
Boundaries of football clubs might thus not be as permeable as they are often expected
and reported to be. On the contrary, we found evidence that the metaphor of the gate-
keeper who protects boundaries accurately describes how membership in a football
club can be granted to some and denied to others. Gatekeepers’decisions are related to
the perceived heritage of the requesters. Not being invited to a training session after
sending an email does not mean that individuals have no chance of becoming
members of the clubs: they could still call or just show up in person for a practice.
However, it is apparent that immigrants face more obstacles than do members of the non-
immigrant population. Sports clubs including women and other age groups, e.g., youth
and older adults, may report different results. Future research should consider examining
these settings and other social activities with rooted domestic traditions (e.g.
Schützenverein, shooting clubs).
In this study, “no response”was the most common negative outcome of a request
Related ﬁeld experiments report a similar result. For example, Sawert (2020) compared
Nobis et al. 11
the invitation rate to the shared housing market in Berlin across immigrant groups (Turks,
Syrians, and Americans). Of 427 no direct invitations, only 38 were direct rejections
(with 3 “more information”requests). The remaining 386 were no response at all. Of
course, even though “no response”is the most effortless response, various other
reasons might be responsible for not responding (e.g. being too busy or not having the
authority to decide).
Whatever alternative reasons for nonresponse may be, it should not differentially
affect minority ethnic groups and immigrants. Because of randomization, respondents
who are, say, too busy to respond should be equally distributed across groups. Thus, dif-
ferent reasons may inﬂuence the overall response rate—but not the differences between
groups (Gerber and Green, 2008). We expect these ﬁndings will motivate future research-
ers to examine in greater detail the reasons amateur football clubs do not respond equally
to local- and foreign-sounding names.
Additionally, there were differences in the response rate for different foreign-sounding
groups. These differences were not statistically signiﬁcant. However, we agree with those
who argue that the p-value alone offers only limited evidence against a null hypothesis
(Bernardi et al., 2017; McShane et al., 2019; Wasserstein and Lazar, 2016). As
McShane et al. (2019) said, it deserves to be “demoted from its threshold screening
role and instead, treated continuously, be considered along with currently subordinate
factors (e.g. related prior evidence, plausibility of mechanism, study design and data
quality, real world costs and beneﬁts, novelty of ﬁnding, and other factors that vary by
research domain) as just one among many pieces of evidence”(McShane et al., 2019:
235). Consequently, we submit that—given the study design and descriptive statistics
—the differences between foreign groups are substantial enough to warrant further
The fact that response rates to Italian-sounding names were ﬁve percentage points
lower than to Polish- and Turkish-sounding names is, at the very least, interesting.
This ﬁnding contrasts with other ﬁeld experiments in Germany, which tend to ﬁnd that
Turkish-sounding names face more obstacles than other nationalities (e.g. relative to
Italians in car-ride selection, Liebe and Beyer, 2021; relative to Americans in the
Berlin shared housing market, Sawert, 2020). We expected a similar outcome.
However, the idiosyncratic characteristics of sports—in particular, the popularity of
players on the German national team—might help to explain this ﬁnding. During the
last decade there have been several Polish and Turkish (but not Italian) players on the
German squad (e.g. Miroslav Klose, Lukas Podolski, Ilkay Gündog
̆an, Mesut Özil).
This explanation is supported by a study demonstrating the beneﬁcial effects of FC
Liverpool’s star player, Mohamed Salah, on Islamophobic prejudices in England
(Alrababa’h et al., 2021).
The purpose of this paper was to empirically investigate who is granted the right to access
a certain social activity, namely, joining an amateur football club in Germany. In parti-
cular, we wondered if being granted the right to belong depended on being perceived
as an immigrant. We used data from a ﬁeld experiment in which individuals with
12 International Review for the Sociology of Sport 0(0)
foreign- and native-sounding names sent identical emails to amateur football clubs asking
to participate in a training session. The results show that membership is at least partly a
matter of being granted the right to belong. In other words, boundary-making processes
are in place in football clubs: having a foreign-sounding name reduces the likelihood of
being invited to a practice session.
The results of the study raise some questions regarding past and future research.
Third-sector organizations, such as sports clubs, are often regarded as formally open to
everybody, offering good opportunities for equal access. In some other ﬁelds—such as
becoming a citizen—it is clearly more difﬁcult to gain access. However, the criteria for citi-
zenship and similar ﬁelds are rather transparent, whereas the decision to grant membership in
a sports club is relatively opaque. In clubs, the decision to admit someone is made by an
individual. In Crowley’s (1999) model, these individuals represent the “gatekeepers”:
they make choices about whom to accept. These gatekeepers are not professionals but volun-
teers who perform the task in their leisure time; they do not have to follow protocols and they
usually do not have to defend their choices. The fact that gatekeepers’decisions are asso-
ciated with the perceived heritage of newcomers, as shown here, suggests that sports
clubs are far less accessible to immigrants than is often assumed.
The ﬁnding also raises questions about mainstream academic discourse. As pointed
out in the Introduction, the academic discourse about the role of sports in immigrant
societies is usually a positive one that focusses on sport’s integrative potential. Even
the fact that ﬁrst- and second-generation immigrants are less likely to be members of a
sports club than their non-immigrant peers does not raise questions about ethnic discrim-
ination, but rather leads to conclusions about cultural differences or self-exclusion. The
present ﬁndings, however, show that even if culture matters, even if there are self-
segregation tendencies, and even if lower participation rates of immigrants interact
with socioeconomic disadvantages, discrimination does occur, and it does so at an
early stage. Whereas some studies show that racist micro-aggressions and assimilation
pressures appear in sports clubs (e.g. Burdsey, 2011; Engh et al., 2017; Massao and
Fasting, 2014) and might lead to minorities’dropping out, the current research shows
that even immigrants who want to participate are, because of their foreign-sounding
name, denied access.
Furthermore, our research supports the argument that differences in participation
rates between immigrants and non-immigrants do not always represent power
inequalities and that similarities do not always represent social equality (Elling and
Claringbould, 2005). Even if immigrants are equally involved in sports clubs as non-
immigrants—and in the German case this does hold true for male adolescents (Nobis
and El-Kayed, 2019)—it does not necessarily mean that there is no discrimination.
Instead, it is likely that immigrants have to put more effort than others into being
accepted (Dietl et al., 2020); or, as the popular saying has it, to stay in one place
they have to run twice as fast.
Data availability statement
The data that support the ﬁndings of this study are publicly available in HarvardDataVerse, https://
Nobis et al. 13
Declaration of Conﬂicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conﬂicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/
or publication of this article.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following ﬁnancial support for the research, authorship, and/
or publication of this article: This work was ﬁnancially supported by the Swiss National Science
Foundation (SNSF), grant no. CRSK-1_190264 and Stiftung für wissenschaftliche Forschung an
der Universität Zürich.
Tina Nobis https://orcid.org/0000-0002-8959-8437
Carlos Gomez-Gonzalez https://orcid.org/0000-0001-8610-4828
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