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 ESPN.com’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 ESPN.com 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.