Phi Beta Cons

Silly academic research: refereeing bias in the NBA

The New York Times ran a story on May 2 about a forthcoming paper by a University of Pennsylvania professor (co-written with a Cornell grad student) that purports to find statistically significant bias in the refereeing in the National Basketball Association.
After examining a load of data, Professor Justin Wolfers concludes that white refs are more likely to call fouls against black players and also that black refs are more apt to call fouls against white players, but the latter is less pronounced than the former.
“Basically, it suggests that if you spray painted one of your starters white, youd win a few more games,” Wolfers told the Times.
Of course, other academics who are eager to find racism jumped on the paper’s conclusions. Said Professor Ian Ayres of Yale Law School, “There’s a growing consensus that a large proportion of racialized decisions is not driven by any conscious race discrimination, but that it is often just driven by unconscious, or subconscious attitudes. When you force people to make snap decisions, they often can’t keep themselves from subconsciously treating blacks different than whites, men different from women.”
This is just plain silly. First of all, the NBA very closely monitors refereeing. Those who make bad calls (a foul where there wasn’t one) or miss calls (failing to call one where there was) risk losing their jobs. Even if you assume racial bias is prevalent among refs (and why assume that — most refs have grown up doing sports where they’ve been in contact with athletes of all races), they have a strong incentive to call games well. Any prejudice means calling the game less than perfectly. Furthermore, the league picks the best refs for playoff games, meaning more money.
The statistical differences found by crunching the data are quite small, so we’re asked to believe that although a typical white referee calls fouls against white players at nearly the same rate as he does against black players, occasionally he just can’t help himself (as Ayres would say) and reverts to unconscious racism. Why believe that? If 98% of a ref’s calls are unquestionably fair, why assume that subtle racism must be the explanation for the other 2%?
Finally, if the paper’s conclusion is correct, then it should be easy to show that teams that have the highest percentages of minutes played by white players have the highest winning percentages. The paper didn’t do that.
It doesn’t make sense to mine data for evidence of this or that unless there is first some logical reason to suspect that something will be found. With regard to NBA refereeing, there isn’t any logical reason to suspect referees of racial bias.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.