On Wednesday, the New York Times reported on a study, released by Joseph Price of Cornell and Justin Wolfers of UPenn, that found institutional racism in NBA referees. The well-timed release of this report has caused every sports media outlet to discuss its results, with responses ranging widely.
The study finds white referees call slightly more fouls on black players and, to a smaller extent, white players take more whistles from black referees. The extent of the imbalance is estimated to be 2.5-4.5% on the whole. Also, players of the opposite race tend to get fewer fouls called on their defenders.
David Stern, NBA Commissioner, read the report a year ago in draft form and ordered the NBA to complete its own study with the highly-detailed data the NBA collects for referee review. The NBA found no sign of racism in its referees.
Considering the pedigree behind the report and the history of this country, it is unwise to dismiss the possibility of deeply-embedded racism. As the study is now submitted for rigorous peer review, here are questions the economics and sports experts should ask:
Wolfers and Price tried to manage many factors, including style of play. Clearly, slashers and drivers will get more fouls called for them than jump shooters. Also, aggressive defensive play will get more fouls called. The authors categorized players into playing styles by analyzing various statistics, massaged to rate statistics per 48 minutes. Does this work? Can we glance at a stat sheet and get a sense of a player type without knowing the player’s name? It’s possible, but the accuracy of those results should be considered carefully.
Defensive style changed during the years the study covers (1991-92 – 2003-04), starting with the introduction of the Pistons-style muggings embraced by the Knicks and other teams with minimal talent. Today, defensive charlatans throughout the league spend more time on their backs than facing their opponent. Flopping for charges and wiggling in front of the semi-circle under the basket creates an entirely different type of contact for officials to monitor. How do these changes affect the results, if at all?
More importantly, though, this report looks at a sociological matter. With that in mind, here are questions we should ask each other:
Is there a differentiation between “plays black” and “is black” in the referees’ minds? What about “acts black”? What happens when Jason Williams picks up Grant Hill on a switch and Hill starts backing Williams down to the basket? Did David Robinson, whose style of play and demeanor would make him appear to be terribly pale in a statistical analysis and a GQ profile, receive the same level of inequity as Patrick Ewing or Shawn Kemp?
Assuming the study’s infallibility for just one moment, is 2.5-4.5% racism acceptable? The NBA is held up as a strong example of equality in sports. Men and women that are trying their level best to be impartial in this environment exhibit a few percentage points of bias. Is 3% racism the best we can do as Americans? Is that close enough? Must we accept we will always like our kind just a tiny bit more? Or is there more we can do?