A coming paper by a University of Pennsylvania professor and a Cornell University graduate student says that, during the 13 seasons from 1991 through 2004, white referees called fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players.
Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School, and Joseph Price, a Cornell graduate student in economics, found a corresponding bias in which black officials called fouls more frequently against white players, though that tendency was not as strong. They went on to claim that the different rates at which fouls are called “is large enough that the probability of a team winning is noticeably affected by the racial composition of the refereeing crew assigned to the game.”…
The three experts who examined the Wolfers-Price paper and the N.B.A.’s materials were Ian Ayres of Yale Law School, the author of “Pervasive Prejudice?” and an expert in testing for how subtle racial bias, also known as implicit association, appears in interactions ranging from the setting of bail amounts to the tipping of taxi drivers; David Berri of California State University-Bakersfield, the author of “The Wages of Wins,” which analyzes sports issues using statistics; and Larry Katz of Harvard University, the senior editor of the Quarterly Journal of Economics.
“I would be more surprised if it didn’t exist,” Mr. Ayres said of an implicit association bias in the N.B.A. “There’s a growing consensus that a large proportion of racialized decisions is not driven by any conscious race discrimination, but that it is often just driven by unconscious, or subconscious, attitudes. When you force people to make snap decisions, they often can’t keep themselves from subconsciously treating blacks different than whites, men different from women.”
Mr. Berri added: “It’s not about basketball — it’s about what happens in the world. This is just the nature of decision-making, and when you have an evaluation team that’s so different from those being evaluated. Given that your league is mostly African-American, maybe you should have more African-American referees…
With their database of almost 600,000 foul calls, Mr. Wolfers and Mr. Price used a common statistical technique called multivariable regression analysis, which can identify correlations between different variables. The economists accounted for a wide range of factors: that centers, who tend to draw more fouls, were disproportionately white; that veteran players and All-Stars tended to draw foul calls at different rates than rookies and non-stars; whether the players were at home or on the road, as officials can be influenced by crowd noise; particular coaches on the sidelines; the players’ assertiveness on the court, as defined by their established rates of assists, steals, turnovers and other statistics; and more subtle factors like how some substitute players enter games specifically to commit fouls…
“Across all of these specifications,” they write, “we find that black players receive around 0.12-0.20 more fouls per 48 minutes played (an increase of 2 ½-4 ½ percent) when the number of white referees officiating a game increases from zero to three.”…“Basically, it suggests that if you spray-painted one of your starters white, you’d win a few more games,” Mr. Wolfers said.
A better way to report this story, which is, after all, about a forthcoming study, might have been to take the time and effort to expose it as the sick joke that it is. (However, the Times’ reporting does seem consistent enough with its “reporting” on Duke and Augusta.) It seems clear enough that the study’s authors know little about basketball, and they certainly don’t appear to enjoy it as fans. They do know how to go around looking to stir up trouble, however, and we hope they get more than their fair share back in return.
As for us, we agree with Phoenix Suns broadcaster Eddie Johnson, who posed these questions for the “researchers”: “Do you understand the nuances of the game of basketball? Do you watch the game? Because if you’re just basing it on stats, then you’re out of line.” And more to the point, ESPN analyst Steve Smith: “I think they’re insane. I think they don’t know what on earth they’re talking about.”
More from an AP report:
Kobe Bryant says he’s never noticed any evidence of racial bias when it comes to NBA officiating. “I think I’ve gotten more techs from black refs than white refs,” the Los Angeles Lakers star joked Wednesday. “That’s reverse racism probably.”…
Derek Fisher…”I don’t ever recall it being a racially motivated type of conversation where we felt like there were certain guys that had it out for me or him or whoever just because of the color of our skin. “I don’t know that I’ve ever really felt that there was a racial component to officiating.” [LeBron] James put it this way: “It’s stupid.” Chicago Bulls veteran forward P.J. Brown said: “Somebody’s got too much time on their hands.”
About 80% of the NBA players are African-Americans. You’d think if there were an actual problem, it wouldn’t take some pinheads from a university to find it. The millionaire players and their lawyers and agents would have found it long before this.
The NBA study recommends that players be officiated by the “opposite race“, a term the study uses 31 times. Questions: (a) who is to officiate Yao Ming? (b) If Tiger Woods decided to try his hand at basketball, who would officiate him?