Some Additional Thoughts on the Referee Bias Study (Updated Below)

Dwil was all over the New York Times story by Alan Schwarz this morning on a study that appears to show a racial bias in NBA officiating. I’ll be curious to see what kind of coverage the study gets (Dwil notes that, as of this morning, it was far down the list on’s main page) and will track it in the next few days. There are a couple of things about this study that may pose obstacles for a clear-minded discussion of it, however. The first is that the sports commentariat is not well-versed in the language of statistical analysis, generally speaking. This lack of facility with that language is what is likely going to allow David Stern to get away with trumpeting the league’s own study (which shows no bias), notwithstanding the obvious fact that the league’s study, which includes no statistical controls for alternative hypotheses, is obviously a joke. The second, as I’ve written about before, is the commentariat’s ongoing difficulty in seeing racism in anything other than Black and White terms. In other words, it’s hard for people to acknowledge the subtler forms of racism (or prejudice more generally). Either somebody goes Imus or John Rocker or Tim Hardaway, in which case their prejudices are obvious, or to raise the issue of race is to “play the race card” and to label something prejudiced is to be divisive or shrill, or whatever. The officiating bias study, if it gets a proper hearing may, one hopes, contribute to a more humbled understanding of how racism works even when we’re not fully conscious of own motives, feelings, etc.

Schwarz’ report last night reminded me of one of the best pieces I’ve ever read on race and the NBA. It was a law-review article about the league’s response to the infamous Pistons-Pacers brawl in November 2004, written by the late Jeffrey Williams, a promising young attorney who died last Fall at the age of twenty six. Williams was, in his spare time, a contributor to the great Sports Law blog and, back in November, I wrote a reader’s digest version of his article.
One of the points Williams raised in his article was the schizophrenia of David Stern who, on the one hand is responsible for a series of policies, like the dress code, and the over-the-top crackdown on any complaining about calls by players that appear to pander to prevailing prejudices about Black athletes. Stern’s defenders would argue that Stern’s policies are simply good business decisions, given the predilections of his predominantly white audience. But, Williams contends, devising policies and doling out punishments (like for the Garden Brawl, which took place after Williams’ article was published) on the basis of “the forces of the market serves to entrench the harmful ideologies that riddle American society.”

On the other hand, Stern has acknowledged, at times, that his league his hamstrung by its racial make-up. Williams re-produces the following quote from Stern, from November 2005:

“I think it’s fair to say that the NBA was the first sport that was widely viewed as a black sport and…will always be viewed a certain way because of it. Our players are so visible that if they have Afros or cornrows or tattoos – white or black – our consumers pick it up. So, I think there are always some elements of race involved that affect judgments about the NBA.”

Just two days ago, in fact, when on the radio with Mike and the Mad Dog discussing the state of the NBA, Stern criticized commentators who used words like “punk” and “thug” to describe NBA players, which he described as “mild code words” for race.

But, none of that awareness or recognition is going to change Stern’s behavior. He obviously isn’t going to acknowledge a potentially systematic bias among his officials, because to do so would call into question the integrity of his referees (that it’s entirely possible that many referees may not be aware that they’re doing it is not relevant here). And, more generally, if his reading of the market for his product leads him to the conclusion that a “black” league needs to be dealt with more harshly than a league with a few more “painted white faces” in it, then so be it. Additionally, while Stern noted the use of code words to describe NBA players two days ago, he also suggested to Mike and Chris that the double standard to which his league is obviously subject compared to other sports was simply a question of visibility. Stern said: “you can see them, everyone knows them, they don’t have hats, they don’t have long sleeves, they don’t have helmets.”

Back in December, in the aftermath of the Garden Brawl, I wrote several posts about the coverage, and noted the degree to which sports commentators (including renowned liberals like Keith Olbermann) balked at the suggestion that the reaction was influenced by race. In that post, I took on the visibility dodge:

“I am dubious about the visibility argument, which we’ve been hearing a lot this week – that the NBA is held to a higher standard because of its “greater visibility” because its players don’t wear helmets, or hats, or long pants, and because the crowd is so close. Kornheiser said this on PTI on Tuesday, Stern’s been saying it, and Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp repeated it on Quite Frankly on Wednesday in a panel discussion in which he denied that race played a role in the nature of the attention the fight has been receiving.

I regard this line of argument as a good example of working hard to miss the obvious. First, except for the people sitting within a few rows of the court, most fans can’t see the players that clearly. I go to most UNC home games and sit with a friend in the second level. We do not have anything like an intimate view of the players. And, since I am not Spike Lee or Woody Allen, I’ve never gotten to sit courtside at a Knicks game. Consequently, of the many basketball games I’ve watched at the Garden over the years, I’ve never gotten a great look at the players and, I dare say, my experience in this regard is more typical than those of the guys sitting on press row.

Second, there’s no greater ability to show close-ups of basketball players on television than there is to show baseball players and, because of the nature of the action, we certainly get a better, longer look at a guy standing at home plate than we do at a basketball player during the normal course of a game. Adande rightly points out that, to some extent, what we’re seeing now is the flip side of a marketing strategy that emphasizes individual players.

But, for the most part, this proximity and intimacy argument is, in my view, nonsense. “

A study of bias that doesn’t rely on what people say their beliefs and perceptions are, but rather simply analyzes their behavior could be a useful place to avoid some of these obfuscations. We’ll see.

Update: John Hollinger weighs in on the study on today. Hollinger says that the study is less important than it appears because the effect of the bias (whose existence he doesn’t dispute), is so small:

But the bigger point that everyone is missing is that, in fact, this study showed remarkably little bias as well. Maybe I’m a cynic here, but I had expected there would be some level of bias by both black and white officials — refs are human too, after all, and when they step on the court they unwittingly bring their life experiences and values with them.

Yet the affect is almost totally insignificant. The study reports that a black player will rack up an added 0.16 fouls per 48 minutes with an all-white officiating crew, as compared to an all-black one.

In other words, if he plays 3,190 minutes in a season — the league-leading total posted by LeBron James this year — he would pick up 11 extra fouls. Eleven.

Even that scenario depends on the difference between all-black and all-white crews, which isn’t realistic — in reality most games will be officiated by a mixed crew (32 percent of the league’s officials are black), so the effect will be much smaller. Thus, the difference between a black player and white player of similar skills and abilities would be something like six or seven fouls all year, out of the 200 or more that most players accumulate in a season. That’s if you lead the league in minutes, mind you — it would be much less for anyone else.

So when the authors talk about a noticeable impact on results, I guess it depends on what they mean by “noticeable.” The authors chose to play up the fact that a bias was found, but to me it’s even more of a story that it was found to be so small.

I asked David Berri – the author of the Wages of Wins, and one of the independent experts cited by the Times about the study – whether he agreed with Hollinger’s perspective on this. Was it true, as Hollinger suggests, that the size of the effect was more important than the fact that the effect exists at all? Here is Berri’s response to me in an email this afternoon:

Whether or not this costs a team a game or not is, in my thinking, irrelevant.  This is not a paper about basketball.  It is a paper about how people judge people who are different (in this case, of another race).  And this paper shows evidence that people are judged differently based on race.  Given the circumstance, that is an impressive finding.  NBA referees receive a great deal training.  Their decisions are consistently reviewed.  If they were racists, you would think they would not choose this line of employment. Given all this, Price-Wolfers still find an effect.  So I think that is the important story.  Even in a situation where you would think implicit bias wouldn’t be there, it is still there.

Perhaps we can think of it this way.  Dwil noted the issue of “Driving While Black.”  I guess one could argue that this is not a real problem.  The incident he described didn’t impact his lifetime earnings.  He still survived.  So one could argue, DWB doesn’t have much “economic significance.”  But the fact that it happens should be a concern.  Whether it has an “economic” impact is not the point. 

More to chew on.


11 Responses to “Some Additional Thoughts on the Referee Bias Study (Updated Below)”

  1. J-
    Thanks for fleshing this out and exposing the media’s duplicity – admittedly, some through ignorance – in tossing a veil over the issue of race and racism relative to the NBA – and by natural extension, society at large.

  2. Do black people do anything besides bitch & moan? Seriously. No wonder they all vote Democrat – they fit in perfectly with those whiny liberals.

  3. Tony-
    jweiler is white.

  4. My favorite line from the NYTimes article:

    “The paper by Mr. Wolfers and Mr. Price has yet to undergo formal peer review before publication in an economic journal.”

    Hey, NYTimes, I’ve got 3 chapters from a dissertation that meet the same criteria. How about some press?

  5. […] As I told Weiler, this reaction misses the point.  In an e-mail to Weiler, I noted the following (which Weiler posted at The Starting Five): […]

  6. I’ve got a quibble with a point that Berri makes:

    “If they were racists, you would think they would not choose this line of employment.”

    Okay, I don’t think the refs are conscious racists. [insert discussion about how racism is a subtle phenomenon based on unacknowledged privilege and perceptions of one’s group’s position]. But…

    69% of Americans are white, refs don’t start their career at the NBA level. They’ve got to work their way up. Most likely, this starts in the high schools across America. Most likely, the players they referee are white. It is only once they move up the ladder that the percentages get more and more black. So my question is, how many high school basketball referees think they will eventually become NBA referees?

  7. As I wrote over at Wages of Wins:

    It is incorrect to think that police stoppages due to DWB do not have a potential (negative) economic significance on the DWB victim.

    Should the event occur on the way to work it will have a detrimental effect on wages earned and perhaps employment. Should the event occur on the way home when one is “taking work home with them” (as in the case of a black judge on his way home to San Jose, Ca.) there can be a palpable negative effect on one’s ability to finish the work load brought home.

    Additionally, there is the psychological factor of gathering one’s self in the aftermath of this sort of incident that has never been addressed relative to its negative economic impact; the loss of work time, quality of work after such an incident, etc.


    Briefly on the study and its meaning:

    The study reports that black and white referees treat opposite race players with a bias; white referees’ bias is more pronounced than black refs.

    The conclusion is that through the set of variables that represents NBA play relative to fouls called, there is statistical evidence of subconscious (at least) bias in the NBA workplace that can be transposed to the workplace, in general.

    (I am constantly surprised that anyone watching an NBA – or any sporting event – game with their own inherent set of biases toward the games and players they view can think bias does not exist between referees and players based on color.)

  8. Craig W. Says:

    It is unrealistic to think that racism doesn’t exist – in everyone to some degree.

    That being said, the operative question is How much does it affect my life? That is what I get out of this article. Like rape, racism is a loaded word that is used to get attention (by people, newspapers, etc). If we cannot eliminate racism by fiat then most of our concern should be Does it affect the game?

    Again, the study found that racism exists, but DOESN’T affect basketball fouls in a very measurable sense. Actually, I am comforted by this finding, not outraged.

  9. ChrisH Says:

    On the flip side it’s pretty amazing that the biases between refs and players would result in at most 1 extra foul called per player every 11 or 12 games. I thought it would be higher.

    An interesting solution would be to raise the percentage of black referees so that their smaller bias cancels evens out the bias of the white refs.

    Another interesting study would be the bias of wnba/college refs against unattractive players. I gotta believe the hotties get a large benefit in that sport if the ref crew is all male.

  10. I don’t want to disclose too much about myself, but suffice it to say I have taken grad-level stats and econ, and I think these researchers did try really hard to control all the factors they could. But yet, I still think they went too far in saying that this was anything like definitive evidence.

    First, it bothers me that the percentage of extra fouls was so small. It’s possible that one or two white referees or bad crews could be responsible for the entire difference. The number of total NBA referees is not that large.

    Second, as I brought up the other day before the articles you linked to were published, whites tend to be more stationary players than blacks. There are exceptions (Ginobili for whites, Allen/Redd for blacks) but it is a general rule.

    What I really would like to see is an analysis on technical fouls. I think that would get rid of problem 2 and maybe even problem 1. But again, there’s another danger; are blacks, as a whole, a more expressive culture than whites? If so, then race may be a confounding factor to what we really should be looking at, which is expressiveness of culture. And too, what about the difference between Northern Europeans, which I personally perceive as more self-controlled and less expressive, and Southern Europeans, who are more emotional? Sorry to be confusing here. But any statistician knows there’s a big difference between correlation and cause. Else, an increase in ice cream consumption really does cause an increase in drowning deaths. (It’s a common anecdote in stats, ask if you’ve never heard of it; both occur because it’s summer, and have nothing to do with each other.)

  11. Since the authors looked only at box scores — and thus have no record of which referee called fouls on which players — it’s hard to take this study seriously one way or another…

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