Study of N.B.A. Sees Racial Bias in Calling Fouls

From an article of the same title by Alan Schwarz in the NY Times:

A coming paper by a University of Pennsylvania professor and a Cornell University graduate student says that, during the 13 seasons from 1991 through 2004, white referees called fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players.

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."

N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern said in a telephone interview that the league saw a draft copy of the paper last year, and was moved to do its own study this March using its own database of foul calls, which specifies which official called which foul.

"We think our cut at the data is more powerful, more robust, and demonstrates that there is no bias," Mr. Stern said.

Three independent experts asked by The Times to examine the Wolfers-Price paper and materials released by the N.B.A. said they considered the Wolfers-Price argument far more sound. The N.B.A. denied a request for its underlying data, even with names of officials and players removed, because it feared that the league's confidentiality agreement with referees could be violated if the identities were determined through box scores.

"There's a growing consensus that a large proportion of racialized decisions is not driven by any conscious race discrimination, but that it is often just driven by unconscious, or subconscious, attitudes. When you force people to make snap decisions, they often can't keep themselves from subconsciously treating blacks different than whites, men different from women."

I buy that last explanation...that people, regardless of the intentions, have natural and often sub-conscious bias against people that are different from them...and that bias can easily come out under stress or when there isn't time to think better. I see it in myself when I react differently to people of different color...until I consciously remind myself that I can't assume something about someone based on the color of their skin. I see it when Christians are more eager to attack people who are different from them (like homosexuals) while basically ignoring others that they can relate to (like gluttony, gossip, materialism, etc). I think racism is still a problem and that black people are just likely to be prejudiced against white people as the flip side.

If you have the chance, watch the FX series "Black. White" (which I've mentioned before and before).

This also reminds me of something else. A while back I set a season pass for Pistons games. I never watch them (until playoff time) but my six-year-old watched a bunch of them. He would tell me about the games and I got a kick out of when, for example, he called Billups "Mr. Big Shot." Anyway, we were watching part of a game together one day and he asked me, "Dad, why do so many basketball players have dark skin?" I wasn't exactly sure how to answer, but what else could I say except that the guys who play in the pros do so because they are taller and are better at jumping and putting the ball in the basket...and so these guys with dark skin must be better at those things. I also said that maybe they practiced more too. I didn't want to admit to him that black people and white people are different (in this admittedly narrow context of playing professional basketball), but it's so obvious and common-sensical that I couldn't help it.


Part of the problem (as I understand it) with the original study is that they took game officials as a group, and didn't distinguish between which officials (if there were both black and white officials calling the game) called which fouls on which players. So, I'm not sure how confident to be of it's accuracy. I also read that the same study found that black officials called more fouls against white players than black (but again, I question how accurate it is.)I don't doubt that we all have some biases that may affect our lives here and there (possibly only subconsciously). However, from everything I've read/heard so far, I don't put much faith in this particular study.

Perhaps this study will prompt another independent study. I don't trust the NBA to make a fair assessment itself, and they're not sharing their data.The article quotes 3 experts who find the Wolfers-Price argument to be stronger than the NBA's, though the Wolfers-Price study has not yet withstood peer review.Yes, the original study found whites biased against blacks and blacks biased against whites (but more weakly). That's one of the reasons it can be tied to racial bias in spur-of-the-moment decisions and not some general prejudice (like big, oafish centers...who are more often white...tend to commit more fouls).I think you're also right that the data set that Wolfers and Price have to analyze does not specify which of the three referees called the fouls. It would be preferable if it did, but as it is I don't think it's too much of a flag against the correlations they find. There are plenty of cases of all-white referee teams, and also I doubt that the higher incidence of fouls by white players when there were two black and 1 white refs was a result of the white ref.It's not that big of a deal to me in terms of the NBA since the actual effect on the game, even if it is real, is not very big. Just interesting to me as more evidence of a persistent, and perhaps inevitable, bias that humans seem to have against people different from them.

I assume this study took into account that there are more black players than white players in the NBA.And btw, what makes a person black or white. If you're a quarter black adn three quarters white, how do you get determined for this study?

Yep, the NY Times article says:

During the 13-season period studied, black players played 83 percent of the minutes on the floor. With 68 percent of officials being white, three-person crews were either entirely white (30 percent of the time), had two white officials (47 percent), had two black officials (20 percent) or were entirely black (3 percent).

With their database of almost 600,000 foul calls, Mr. Wolfers and Mr. Price used a common statistical technique called multivariable regression analysis, which can identify correlations between different variables. 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.

also how the blackness or whiteness was determined:

Mr. Wolfers said that he and Mr. Price classified each N.B.A. player and referee as either black or not black by assessing photographs and speaking with an anonymous former referee, and then using that information to predict how an official would view the player. About a dozen players could reasonably be placed in either category, but Mr. Wolfers said the classification of those players did not materially change the study's findings.