Referee Bias Coverage
Last Wednesday, when I first followed up Dwil’s comments about the study that suggested a racial bias among NBA referees, I wrote:
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.
Having spent the last few days sampling some of the coverage, I am here to tell you that I dramatically understated just how obtuse the sports commentariart could be. Not everyone got it wrong, but the commentariat’s tendencies toward anti-intellectualism and laziness were on full, painful display.
A few examples, with commentary. Here was Charles Barkley with Dan Patrick last Wednesday:
“That might be the most stupid study I’ve ever heard, for two reasons. Number one, there are a lot more black players in the NBA. So, of course, there are going to be more calls by white referees against Black players. But, also, I bet those jackasses, if they wanted to, I bet Black referees call more fouls against black players. For them to come out with a statement like that, is irresponsible and it’s asinine.
“to come out with a survey saying white officials call more fouls against black players is stupid and its not right.”
One has to love the fact that Charles Barkley has, all of a sudden, developed delicate sensibilities about what should and shouldn’t be said (“it’s irresponsible”). And, it’s not clear whether, when Barkley says “it’s not right,” he means that it’s factually inaccurate or that it violates a code of civility that should not be violated. (As an aside, it’s always fascinating when a crowd that normally decries “political correctness” suddenly and un self-consciously embraces it so fervently. But, as I’ve discussed many times before, talking about race, unless it comes in a flagrantly offensive and incendiary form, is considered out of bounds by much of the mainstream sports media).
I don’t know why I should be surprised, but the point Barkley raises here, about there being more fouls on Blacks because there are more Black players falls into the logical fallacy category known as: “moronic.” The study, of course, doesn’t say that the aggregate number of fouls called on Black players as a group is higher. It says that the average individual Black player gets called for more fouls depending on the racial composition of the officiating crew. This, of course, has nothing to do with whether there are more Black than White players in the league. Barkley, of course, was not alone in making this point.
And, in his usual, incisive way, Dan Patrick’s reaction to Barkley’s complete misunderstanding of the study: “Great stuff, Charles.”
The Around the Horn guys (fair question: why bother?) also, naturally, got it wrong. Leading the charge was Michael Smith, who proved that, among other things, he could really use a refresher course in remedial logic:
“what’s the motivation for this kind of a study. I mean, the NBA goes above and beyond to protect the integrity of its officiating. If there’s any thought of a conspiracy, David Stern’d fine somebody or suspend somebody. We just saw what happened with Joey Crawford and Tim Duncan. And, the second thing is, the NBA is 72% Black, so obivously there are going to be a lot more fouls called on Black players than white players, there are alot more black players than white players and the third thing is: what’s the solution, do you reduce the number of black players, do you increase the number of black referees simply to eliminate the fear of a conspiracy. No, that would be ridiculous.”
If you were wondering where the word “conspiracy” appears in the study itself, the answer is: it doesn’t. But, that’s not surprising because I think it’s fair to say that Michael Smith hasn’t actually read the study (it’s here, if you’re interested). And note, like Barkley, the embarrassing recitation of the league’s racial composition, despite the irrelevance of that fact to the study’s findings. In fact, Smith here perfectly illiustrates the Third Law of Punditry: the less you know about something, the more loud-mouthed and shrill your comments about that subject.
Like Barkley, Smith has also suddenly discovered political correctness:
“the fact that we’re discussing this study – that’s offensive, that’s an
insult to every referee in the NBA, to their professionalism, because now they’re being painted with this broad brush….give them the benefit of the doubt…they’ve risen up the ranks not by being racist or prejudiced.”
Bill Plaschke, of the LA Times, followed up Smith’s indignation about the revelation that referees are, after all, human, by playing the race card:
“this is an insult to black referees…you don’t think they’d notice this. They
No, Bill, that’s not a reach on your part. That’s a responsible interjection of race into the conversation. That’ll be worth keeping in mind next time Plaschke accuses someone of “playing the race card.”
On Wednesday’s PTI, Kornheiser and Wilbon struck a more reasonable tone. Here’s part of their exchange:
Kornheiser: “my feeling is that it probably reflects some subconscious prejudices that we all have…now it seems to me that we could use this as a learning tool. You could call all the referees in and say to the Black refs ‘says this about you’ and you could say to the white refs ‘says this about you’ maybe we can do better.”
Wilbon: “Tony, the key thing you said is ‘prejudices we all have.’ I have found NBA circles, including NBA officials, to be more tolerant than anyone else I’ve covered.
Fair enough. Unfortunately, by last Thursday, Wilbon had apparently gotten the talking points from the league office and went on the war path against the study. Kornheiser introduced the Thursday segment by noting a key point of criticism about the study:
Kornheiser: “one of the major sticking points is that the study used box scores, not tapes of the games to determine which refs called which fouls.
Wilbon: “this is why I think it’s bogus – if you don’t tell me, for certain, this is
supposed to be a study, not just anecdotal evidence who made the call…did the white referee make the call on the Black player..because now your dealing with conjecture, not fact…or, I don’t want to hear this…”
And later, Wilbon added:
“Black players said, ‘we don’t see this – Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher – we don’t understand this. Because we don’t have this problem.”
Note the attempt by Wilbon to use the language of statistics to impugn the study. Telling a social scientist he or she has only “anecdotal” evidence to support a claim is the equivalent of insulting someone’s mother in the school yard. But. clever though he is, Wilbon gets the terminology wrong. The study, however flawed it may be, is not based on anecdotal evidence, but massive statistical evidence. Wilbon may believe that the racial composition of the officiating crew is an imperfect proxy for knowing who made the actual calls, but since the NBA won’t release that data, social scientists will be stuck making approximations. And, as it turns out, the study’s findings all hold up even when you eliminate mixed-race crews. In other words, when we know with 100% certainty the race of the official making the call.
On his radio show last Thursday, Stephen A. was a bit more measured. After reminding his listeners of his bona fides as an NBA expert, Smith said:
“I have never, not one time, walked into a game, had this perception that white referees had something against black players…Now, that doesn’t eliminate the reality of biases…maybe [a referee] would be more comfortable if a white player talked to him a certain way as opposed to a Black player…the individual biases that people have inside of themselves – I’m quite sure they exist and the article alludes to that.”
But, Smith, too was bothered by the study:
“But, as a Black man, and one of the few that’s over the airwaves, what bothers me about a report like this…all I am saying is that as a Black man, when we bring issues of race out to the public, make sure it counts. Make sure we can say “look, this is clear. This is not one of those cases and that’s where I am uncomfortable with this.”
This comment perfectly illustrates the point I’ve made here and before: the difficulty of talking about race in any but the most simplistic terms. I actually give some credit here to Smith for at least wrestling with that problem. On a less impressive note, Stephen A.’s producer, Mike, did not cover himself in glory in his discussion of the study. Mike spent much of the show disparaging academics and intellectuals, demonstrating that he was a regular guy by saying he didn’t understand “all these charts and graphs.” But, Mike, who holds a law degree, also failed the elementary logic test: “in a league that’s 85% black (sic), how could more calls NOT be committed against Black players? And, to his discredit, Stephen A. chimed i: “exactly.”
Stephen A. also criticized the study for accusing the referees of “racism” and, at the same time, saying that the study contradicts itself because it only talks about unconscious bias which, in Smith’s view, cannot be racist because racism only exists where it’s self-conscious.
Of course, the word “racism” doesn’t appear in the study, but that gets back to the whole reading thing, so…
Some commentary, especially in print, did a better job of taking on the subtlety of the findings. David Steele, in the Baltimore Sun last Thursday wrote:
“But biases are in the nature of our society, not just today, but always and probably forever. You can’t, no matter how much you try, discount the idea that subconscious prejudices come into play. Pro-you, anti-them, or whatever has been drilled into your head in your years on this planet.
In the heat of the moment, it’s not inconceivable that an official, no matter how full of integrity he is, sees Shaq and Vlade Divac collide in the lane and forms the instinctive thought — faster than he can blow breath into the whistle – “That enormous black guy can’t get away with that.”
Or vice versa: An official sees Kirk Hinrich strip Dwyane Wade going full-steam toward the basket and, in the blink of an eye, concludes, “No way a white guy can pull that off cleanly.”
Steele himself demonstrates the difficulty of discussing sub-conscious bias when he notes that:
The study hints at racial profiling. In real life that’s borne out by real people
describing real experiences of being pulled over for DWB (driving while black). But the next condemnation of FWB (fouling while black) in the NBA will be the first.
Of course, if the study is concerned with the phenomenon of implicit association (referenced by Henry Abbott’s excellent True Hoop entry on the study), then we would not, in fact, no it when we see it.
Steele seems at once both unable and able to recognize that fact:
Joel Litvin, the NBA’s president of basketball operations, told ESPN.com that the paper’s conclusions are “flat-out wrong.”
Still, we are living where we are when we are. So, jumping to that conclusion is also flat-out wrong.”
And, Harvey Araton, in the New York Times, gets to the heart of the matter:
Let me say right from the start that I am not here to champion a 13-year study by a University of Pennsylvania professor and a Cornell University graduate student that found that white referees in the N.B.A. had called fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players, and a corresponding but lesser bias by black refs against whites.
Not as a basketball issue, anyway.
Regarding the impact on the outcome of N.B.A. games and the integrity of the sport, my many years of being inside the arena tell me there are way too many variables beyond mere data solely extracted from box scores to draw meaningful conclusions from this. But as a study of the human condition, it is fascinating, and who among its critics qualifies as the authority on how the brain stores information and makes that split-second call? (my emphasis).
That last question by Araton is pivotal, because much of the reaction to the study (and I’ve spared you much idiocy, I promise, by- no surprise – Peter Vecsey, for example) is, in fact, born of an unthinking arrogance on the part of the sports commentariat. It’s the same arrogance that has produced such visceral disdain for the sabermetric revolution and other more statistically oriented approaches to sports. Namely, that anyone who suggests that our sports “experts” own eyes are not the final arbiter of all truth in sports is ill-informed, out of touch with reality and common sense and not fit to be part of the conversation with real sports guys. I wrote about this issue at some length last November, in a post on David Berri et al’s Wages of Wins.
One guy who really got it right last week was Boog Sciambi, talk sports radio host on Miami’s 790 The Ticket. Sciambi actually thought to talk to both Alan Schwarz, who wrote the article for the Times, and Justin Wolfers, the Wharton school professor who co-authored the study.
Some interesting points from Sciambi’s conversation with Schwarz:
1) Schwarz emphasizes that the study focuses on unrecognized, subtle racial bias: “which exists in otherwise perfectly fair-minded people…In general people will base decisions on racial details of which they are not even aware…in split second, high-pressure situations.”
<> 2) Sciambi also raised the issue of race as a sometimes non clear-cut factor, in the following interesting exchange:
<>Sciambi: “I think that white America specifically is uncomfortable with the phrase ‘race
is a factor.’ If it’s not ‘race is the factor’ or ‘it is racist’ they don’t want to hear it. For example, I think that race is a factor in how Barry Bonds is covered. The majority of the people covering him are old white guys and the fans that go to the games are majority white. I think it is a factor. People don’t like hearing that.”
<>Schwarz: “I think you have to be careful where you diagnose racism and where you do not because while it may be true at every turn, if it dilutes the conversation and makes
people calloused to it, it ultimately might backfire in terms of what you’re trying to
Sciambi: “I don’t think it makes people callous. I think it threatens them.”
As Stephen A.’s and Michael Smith’s comments, above, demonstrate, it appears that it’s not just White America that struggles with the distinction that Sciambi makes here.
3) Sciambi also specifically asked Schwarz whether the authors were calling NBA referees racist. Schwarz’ response:
“no, they are not in the business of labelling. What they found was a statistically significant meaningful numerical difference in the number of fouls that were called by each group on each group. What radio hosts and other folks want to interpret those as being, whatever noun and adjective they want to assign to them that’s your business.”
The following day, Sciambi interviewed Wolfers. Of note was that Wolfers blasted David Stern, calling him the biggest source of the misconceptions about the study (see my comment at the top). Wolfers told Sciambi that he asked the NBA whether there were any relevant variables theNBA thought he should include in his study that migh change the findings and that the NBA never responded and noted, about the NBA’s own study, which it refuses to release: “if I had facts that could help my organization, I would be the first to send it out to everyone I could…”
Wolfers also explained what the study did and did not conclude:
“we’re not calling anybody racist. In fact, I’ve talked to referees and they strike me as people who are unbelievably committed to getting the calls right.” And: “I think the NBA is a remarkably color blind organization. But, even in a place with such great training for the referees and such a commitment to excellence that we could find some evidence of bias, that makes you worry about the rest of society. We’re really not calling anyone a racist – we’re worrying about implicit biases…”
Sciambi repeated to Wolfers the comment he made to Schwarz, about the difficulty of talking about race in nuanced terms:
“people want it to be – no pun intended – black or white – they don’t want it to be gray. They want it to be “this guy is officiating with a clan hood on,” or they don’t want to hear it.
“our study is subtle.”
Too subtle, it appears for much of our sports punditocracy.