Wednesday, May 02, 2007

NBA: Referees Biased By Race In Calling Fouls?

Justin Wolfers, a professor at the Wharton School in the University of Pennsylvania, and Joseph Price, a graduate student at Cornell University, reportedly have completed a statistical study of 13 NBA seasons (from 1991 to 2004) and concluded that white referees call fouls against black players more than white players.

According to the study, the difference may affect the actual result of the game:
[The difference in calling fouls] 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 New York Times in a story written by Alan Schwartz on May 2, 2007, reports that it asked three experts to review the study and they gave some support to the soundness of the study. Ian Ayres of Yale Law School said he would be surprised if a subtle bias did not exist just because of unconscious attitudes based on race that affect everyone in quick decisions.

So, is there a bias by race when NBA referees call fouls? I don't know, because I haven't reviewed the study and the underlying data. But it would not surprise me, because of how strong unconscious racial prejudice is in all of us. It would also not surprise me if the bias exists even among random, average people from all parts of society (it is not necessarily that the referees the NBA chose are particularly biased).

What is very telling is that the report comes not from sports journalists but from academic scholars. It is sad that sports journalists are not making critiques and constructive commentary of referees' performance -- after all, they play a key part of the game just as it would be fair to comment on how teams perform under certain weather conditions or if you think the ball is juiced. Just as Professor Ayres said, commenting on referees does not mean that you feel the referees are intentionally biased or cheating. There is lots of room to comment on referee tendencies that have nothing to do with cheating -- for example, if some referees are honest but unconsciously biased by race or if some referees are honest and call certain types of fouls against both teams more than other referees do.

We can certainly understand why Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, said "No comment" to the New York Times when they asked whether he had ever suspected of a racial bias in NBA referee calls. That's because the NBA like other leagues like the NFL are so harsh against any commentary by NBA owners, coaches, and players against the referees. But there is no reason why sports writers and journalists shouldn't be doing that type of commentary -- unless perhaps they are afraid of offending the NBA or NFL.

Post your comments on the topic, including what you think of the study and why journalists are not writing about referees more. Anonymous comments are also possible, for those who are afraid of the NBA or NFL....


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