Study: NBA Refs Influenced By Race?

by Marcel Mutoni / @marcel_mutoni

For whatever reason, every few years, someone deems it necessary to study race dynamics within the NBA, and they somehow manage to secure funding for it. It’s an interesting hustle.

The latest findings — that NBA refs are likely to call less fouls on players of similar race, and vice versa — come by way of a couple of professors who analyzed data from thousands of NBA games.

The researchers say that their numbers suggest that the racial bias isn’t intentional, however.

From the Deseret News:

It’s unintentional, but NBA referees call fewer fouls on players of their own race, according to a recently published paper co-authored by a BYU professor. Yet the study, which came out last week in Quarterly Journal of Economics, has ramifications beyond the basketball court, says Joe Price, a BYU economics professor who co-authored the study as a Ph.D. student at Cornell along with assistant professor Justin Wolfers at the University of Pennsylvania.

After accounting for things like position, all-star status, points, blocks, steals, minutes played, etc., Price and Wolfers looked at fouls per player compared to the racial makeup of the referees. If the three-member referee crew was mostly white, white players received 4 percent fewer fouls than did black players. And if the referees were mostly black, black players received 4 percent fewer fouls. Even stronger bias occurred when the referees were all one race, Price said. Results were striking enough that for a player experiencing a positive bias, their points would increase by 2.5 percent, and if someone had bet on a team that was more racially similar to the referees, it would have been a “very profitable betting strategy,” Price said.

Yet, this bias is not so obvious that players, coaches or referees notice it, Price said. It only appears when studying thousands of calls, leading the scholars to believe it’s unintentional.

For what it’s worth, the NBA, and the players and coaches interviewed on the matter all seem to think this is nonsense.

The League published its own independent study in 2007 in an attempt to debunk these findings.