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: