Alan Schwarz writes a column about a paper by Justin Wolfers and Joseph Smith in today’s New York Times. The paper Racial Discrimination and NBA Referees looks at how referees call fouls against players of different races. The results are very interesting.
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.
Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School, and Joseph Price, a Cornell graduate student in economics, found a corresponding bias in which black officials called fouls more frequently against white players, though that tendency was not as strong. They went on to claim that the different rates at which fouls are called “is large enough that the probability of a team winning is noticeably affected by the racial composition of the refereeing crew assigned to the game.”
You may recall Wolfers from his work on point shaving in NCAA basketball. Similarly, Wolfers has found a way to use sports as a laboratory to examine human behavior in a controlled setting. When I see a study like this, I slap myself in the forehead and say “why didn’t I think of that?” I’m jealous. What an interesting way to examine those subtle racial biases that are so difficult to study in the general population.
Studies of racism in sports are very common. Why? Because one of the hardest things to control for in studies of racial discrimination is performance. You might look at a sample of workers who get promoted and who doesn’t, but there is always the possibility that other factors correlated with race influence the promotion decision. Controlling for this is much less difficult in sports because we can control for performance characteristics.
Using Dave Berri, Stacey Brook, and Martin Schmidt’s “Win Score” measure, the authors find that the effect is big enough to affect a few wins in a season. As Wolfers puts it “Basically, it suggests that if you spray-painted one of your starters white, you’d win a few more games,” Mr. Wolfers said.
It’s not surprising that the NBA disputes these findings with data that it will not share. I think there are several legitimate reasons to keep this data private, But, the league also has a duty to take the Wolfers-Smith result seriously and to investigate this issue further. In no way do I think any NBA referee consciously uses race to referee a game. But in a fast-paced contest, where decisions must be made immediately, it is not surprising to see such bias sneak out. As this story plays out, I hope that we will learn more about race and society.