Links: The NBA Hates Black People?

by Lang Whitaker

I don’t have time today to do a long post, but I’ll be back late tonight to wrap-up the late games.

One thing I wanted to mention today is a story in this morning’s New York Times which seems to endorse a research paper by a couple of academics that concludes white referees call more fouls against black players than white players.

According to the Times

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 David Sternbot responds that the NBA went back and looked at their data, which specifies which refs called which fouls, and, “We think our cut at the data is more powerful, more robust, and demonstrates that there is no bias.”

(My favorite thing about this story is when they ask a few NBA players about a perceived bias, and who do they ask? SLAM columnist Mike James! Mike is quoted as saying, “If that’s going on, then it’s something that needs to be dealt with. But I’ve never seen it.”)

The real question here is, Are white NBA referees biased against black NBA players? My gut reaction is that it’s an interesting study and the numbers seem to come to a cut-and-dried answer, but it’s making an issue out of something that’s not an issue. The numbers may speak otherwise, but I’ve been following the NBA my entire life and watching it really closely for the last 8 years, and maybe it’s because I’m white, but until I read this story I’d never even thought about this. And in a world that’s regularly electrified by injected race into conversations, I’d suspect if this was a real problem someone, anyone, would have made an issue of it by now.

Later in the story, it actually says…

Mr. Wolfers and Mr. Price claim that these changes are enough to affect game outcomes. Their results suggested that for each additional black starter a team had, relative to its opponent, a team’s chance of winning would decline from a theoretical 50 percent to 49 percent and so on, a concept mirrored by the game evidence: the team with the greater share of playing time by black players during those 13 years won 48.6 percent of games — a difference of about two victories in an 82-game season.

“Basically, it suggests that if you spray-painted one of your starters white, you’d win a few more games,” Mr. Wolfers said.

Wolfers uses the code word “suggests” there, which means “this is what the statistics say, but we all know that’s a bunch of crap.”

Me, I’m curious for more details. Are the numbers skewed because white guys are generally worse defenders than black guys and therefore they regularly get blown past before they can even foul anyone? Do black coaches get more technical fouls than white coaches? Did the researchers take into account intentional fouls, when coaches generally empty the bench (i.e.: put the white guys in) in order to give fouls? How did they classify Jason Williams? And there are a ton of calls made in a game besides fouls — how many of them play out along the same racial lines?

What do you guys think? Are they on to something here? Or are we just wasting our breath?