No harm, no foul?: Report On Referee Bias Keeps Harshing NBA’s ‘Flow’

By Arturo R. García

A report re-published this week in The Quarterly Journal of Economics suggests a racial bias among NBA referees. But the bigger story might be watching the league get forced out of its’ defensive stance on the issue.

According to the study by Joe Price and Justin Wolfers, based on analyzing 13 years’ worth of data on referee calls, the refs are 4 percent less likely to call fouls on players of their own race. (No wonder Kobe looks so surprised there.) Also, players score 2.5 percent more points during games involving ref crews of their own race. But don’t tell that to NBA Commissioner David Stern.

As Price told ESPN’s Henry Abbott, the idea for the study stems from his reading of Blink, Malcolm Gladwell’s book about what goes into split-second decisions in a variety of situations. As Abbott explains it:

Sports presented a special opportunity to learn a lot more, because referees make quick decisions — the kinds that reveal implicit bias — every night.

“If I had as good a set of data on judicial sentencing, or hiring decisions, I would have gone and looked at those,” says Price, who was then getting his Ph.D. at Cornell, and is now an assistant professor at Brigham Young. “In my mind, I don’t have any issues with the NBA. I actually think they’ve achieved racial equality in so many dimensions. They just happen to be a lab setting in which I get quasi-random assignment, I get lots of interactions between a small number of actors. I get a perfect setting to look at racial bias. And in some ways, if it’s happening on a court in front of thousands of people, then it’s probably happening when you go to make purchasing decisions, or hiring decisions, or whatever decisions we can think of as more important.”

But ever since the New York Times reported on Price and Wolfers’ findings three years ago, the NBA and Stern have gone out of their way to knock it, going so far as to say racism “doesn’t exist” in the league:

“This is a bum rap, that’s all,” Stern said after the study’s initial release. “This is a bum rap, and if it is going to be laid on us it should be laid on us by basis of some people who are purported to be scholars in a publication that purports to hold us up to a higher standard — a little bit more should have been done.”

Stern has also said the league conducted its’ own study into referee bias, and crowed about it to Time Magazine:

Many commentators openly allege that star players get favorable treatment from referees. Why has there been so little response from the NBA to this problem?
The criticism is not true. We have data to demonstrate that superstars don’t get that treatment. I’ve just been hesitant to hold a press conference to announce the obvious.

Of course, neither Stern nor the NBA have actually released this data. In that same interview with Time, Stern said the NBA, while being seen as “too black,” did not “have a hip-hop agenda.” Maybe it wasn’t strictly hip-hop-related, but compared to Major League Baseball and the NFL, it’s hard to argue that the league didn’t leverage blackness as a marketing point at least since it absorbed the American Basketball Association, allowing it to promote Julius Erving as P-funk on the parquet:

Then there was the Black vs. White and City vs. “Country” narrative the league fed off of when it had Magic Johnson and Larry Bird leading and becoming symbols for the L.A. Lakers and Boston Celtics, its’ marquee franchises in the 1980s:

And then, Michael Jordan. Is Stern saying he wasn’t happy to “go with the flow” when Spike Lee took an interest in him?

Of course, this was during the league’s salad days, before Allen Iverson made people uncomfortable; before Latrell Sprewell and Ron Artest made them really uncomfortable; and before Lebron James … well, you know.

So far, league officials have refused to comment on the re-release of the study, but Abbott says it has a chance to save face:

The data Price and Wolfers studied is, on average, more than a decade old. Since then, thanks to oversight changes after the Donaghy scandal, the ranks of referees are both more diverse and far more scrutinized than ever. Perhaps the referee corps started ahead of the curve, at about 4 percent racial bias as Price and Wolfers found, and has improved from there. Perhaps they have made tremendous progress already.

The league is prevented from telling that story now, however, in part because they deny there was any bias to begin with.

“I think if the NBA had just said: ‘wow, we didn’t realize this was going on. 4 percent, that’s not that big. We’re doing better than other organizations, but let’s see what we can do about it.’” suggests Price, “that would have been the right response and it probably would have gotten the job done.”