5.01.2007

the nba is racist, yo

according to the new york times, nba officials have a racial bias! i use an exclamation mark because if this research by a penn professor, justin wolfers is correct, this is an extraordinary development. according to the article, white officials are more likely to call fouls on black players, and black officials are more likely to call fouls on white players. the difference is admittedly small (around 2-4% more fouls depending on your race), but in the bigger picture, what it means is that the outcome of a game can be determined by the racial makeup of the officiating crew and the racial makeup of a team.

i wish there was a link to the research so i can make a more definitive assessment of the methodology, but it seems that the LA times had the report examined by three independent stats experts and they all seem to agree that the research is legit.

what i find amusing is the league's response. according to the league, they've done their own research and that their research shows no bias with officials. while this response is predictable, it is made more remarkable when you take into account the the differences between the two research studies. the wolfers' research used data from 13 NBA seasons (1991-2004). the NBA's research used two years worth. the wolfers' research took into account, player position, and veteran status. the NBA's did not. the wolfers' research is done by an academic whose career is consumed by exploring these issues in a scientific manner. the NBA's research is done by an actuarial consulting firm, whose careers is consumed with getting paid by the NBA. the wolfers' research has made their data to anyone who wants to check it out for themselves ensuring accuracy and peer review. the NBA's research is supposedly "proprietary" for confidentiality reasons.

it seems pretty clear to me, who is probably closer to being right. i have to disclose that the NBA does have the advantage of having data on individual data, which it appears that wolfers' research does not. and this i find strange since i don't think it would have been that difficult for wolfers to have included this in his models. anyways, like any good business venture, the NBA is burying its head in regards to the social issues that surround its product.

my reaction of course is predictable and mirrors ian ayres, a professor at yale who reviewed the research for the la times, when he says
I would be more surprised if it (bias) didn’t exist. 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.
for more on this theory, click here to watch a dateline report on some very interesting research being done by those crazy cats at berkeley about subconscious racial bias.

basketball is the perfect setting for this by the way. more than any sport, race is crucially woven into the very fabric of the game. in football, it's hard to see race with a helmet on. in baseball, there really aren't enough black people. but no where is race more evidently embodied in players than in basketball. it makes perfect sense to me that race would influence the outcome of a contest.

anyways, from a regular fan standpoint, i've always been wary of the idea of league conspiracies enacted through poor officiating. however, after watching game 5 of the mavs/warriors series, where some very iffy officiating may have resulted in a win for the good guys, and coupling that with this video that popped up recently, i may have to rethink my position. either that or officials seem to think that dwayne wade is white.

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