Black And White Zebras

The New York Times published an article yesterday about a recent study on the racial makeup of referees and their calls in NBA games. The study (you can read it here), done by two Ivy League economists, looked at data from 13 NBA seasons between 1991 and 2004. They broke down the racial makeup of the three-man referee crews in each game and using multivariable regression analysis, looked at how calls were made against white and black players.
My first thought about this was that it was a bunch of crap. How could they really account for all the reasons why players do or do not commit fouls? What about the superstars, most of whom are black, who tend to get the benefit of the calls? Well, then I read the article and found that they accounted for that:

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.


What they found was that white refs tend to call more fouls on black players and black refs tend to call more fouls on white players.
Part of me wants to say “no duh” while another part wants to scream “no way!” These refs have been around basketball players their whole lives. Basketball players at the highest levels are disproportionately black, so wouldn’t any natural, unintended biases fade over time?
The answer is maybe. Maybe the biases do fade but they don’t disappear. No matter how enlightened any of us is, we can’t help but notice a person’s race. It’s likely the very first thing you notice when you see someone. The next wave of electrical impulses that fly across our brains carry a soup of stereotypes that we try to ignore, but usually can’t. Black players are more athletic. Black players are more aggressive. Black players are better. White players are smarter. White players are either big white stiffs or perimeter jump shooters. White players are more fundamentally sound. We know the stereotypes. We try to say that we don’t use them ourselves, but we do. It’s not something we can completely suppress. It’s in our DNA, part of our ancient survival instincts where we had to quickly determine US versus THEM when we came across other humans in the forest or plains.
But back to the study and the bias it found. Exactly how big of a measurable impact is there?

“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.”

So at the maximum, an extra .2 fouls, or one for every five games, when a crew goes from all black to all white. Considering that a little over two-thirds of NBA refs are white, it’s unlikely that there are many games with no white refs and fewer than a third of the games had all white refs. So we’re talking about maybe 10 extra fouls in a seasons. Maybe. Anyone who watches much NBA (and honestly, I don’t) can tell you that there’s a wide discrepancy between the ways games are called from night-to-night and even from quarter-to-quarter within games. Given that inconsistency, is an “extra” 10 fouls over the course of a year really significant? Is it affecting the outcome of games? I doubt it.
But here’s where the study gets into an area where I am doubtful about their conclusions. Along with the foul disparity (which I believe), they claim that many other aspects of players’ games were affected by the refs:

Mr. Wolfers and Mr. Price also report a statistically significant correlation with decreases in points, rebounds and assists, and a rise in turnovers, when players performed before primarily opposite-race officials.

Come again? How in the world would the race of the refs affect assists? Or rebounds? This little blurb alone (and they go on to point out that when added all together, these differences do affect a few games per year) makes me wonder about the whole thing. I don’t doubt that they’ve discovered something – I mean they had a lot of data – but I’m not sure what. As the old saying goes, correlation doesn’t imply causation and I can’t think of any rational reason why the race of refs would affect how players play unless the foul discrepancy were really significant (and .2 extra fouls at the extremes is not significant).
So in the end, what do we really have here? I think it’s a pretty fascinating study, but not really in basketball terms. I think it is interesting, if not at all surprising, in social terms. In the NBA, a world where there’s about as little racial bias as possible, a world where your value is determined almost entirely on your measurable performance, a world with a significant racial mix, you can still find racial bias. That’s important to understand. Maybe we should just acknowledge that we’ll never be completely colorblind. We can work to overcome our inherent prejudices but we need to realize that we’ll never eliminate them completely.

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