From the New York Times:
Study of N.B.A. Sees Racial Bias in Calling Fouls
By ALAN SCHWARZ
An academic study of the National Basketball Association, whose playoffs continue tonight, suggests that a racial bias found in other parts of American society has existed on the basketball court as well. 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.
These scholars should get the Nobel Prize for their discovery that there are still white players in the NBA!
The economists write:
The data in Figure 2 show that 21 out of 29 black referees [74%] have a below-average bias in foul-calling against black players, while 34 of 55 white referees [62%] have an above average bias in foul-calling against black players.
That would seem to raise the obvious question: who is right and who is wrong? Perhaps the black refs on average are wrongly discriminating against the white players more than the white refs are wrongly discriminating against the black players? I realize it's completely despicable to even entertain that possibility, but it is a conceptual possibility. ... Okay, forget I ever said that. Everybody knows that in all facets of human behavior, blacks are more accurate and honest decision makers than whites, so white racism must be the only possible explanation.
The economists admit, unsurprisingly:
"Unfortunately our framework is not well-suited to sorting out whether these results are driven by the actions of black or white referees."
They go on to take some SWAGs at why it's really the white refs' fault, but they admit that is much weaker than the rest of their analysis. But that doesn't stop the NYT from playing this study up as proof of the White Man Keeping the Black Man Down in the NBA.
Interesting findings from this huge study in the pdf that the NYT doesn't play up:
- Blacks get 83% of the playing time in the NBA.
- Blacks get substantially fewer fouls called on them per 48 minutes of playing time, but they are more likely to be starters, who get fewer fouls, and not play center, a position that fouls a lot. Possibly, referee bias in favor of blacks contributes to blacks getting to be starters more, but nobody is interested in investigating that.
- NBA teams would win slightly more games if they played whites more. The economists write: "In our sample, the team with a greater share of playing time accounted for by black players won 48.6% of games ..." That this figure doesn't diverge far from 50% show that NBA teams are pretty good about about putting the best team on the court irrespective of color, but you know that if the study showed the opposite -- that teams that played more whites won only 48.6% of the time -- the NYT would be howling about anti-black prejudice.
If you are interested in a blatant example of old guard stupidity in sports having a disparate impact by ethnicity that the media relentlessly ignored for decades because it was benefiting a minority group, here's my 2003 article "Baseball's Hidden Ethnic Bias."