King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The NBA dismisses a study that finds racial bias in its officiating, but it would be shocking if that finding were wrong. Plus: Suns vs. Spurs.

Published May 3, 2007 4:00PM (EDT)

Alan Schwarz of the New York Times reports that a coming academic study of foul calls in the NBA reveals a slight but statistically significant racial bias.

The study, by Justin Wolfers, a University of Pennsylvania assistant professor of business and public policy, and Joseph Price, a Cornell graduate student in economics, found that from the 1992 to the 2004 seasons, white referees called fouls against black players at a greater rate than they called fouls against white players. Black referees called more fouls against white players than against blacks, the study says, but the tendency was not as strong.

The NBA denies it. Having received a draft of the study last year, the league conducted its own, smaller probe, looking at only two and a half years through the middle of this season.

But the NBA had the advantage of knowing which referee called each foul. Wolfers and Price, denied that information by the NBA and working from box scores, were only able to assess officials as three-man teams, basing their findings on whether the teams were majority or unanimously white or black.

"We think our cut at the data is more powerful, more robust, and demonstrates that there is no bias," commissioner David Stern said.

Though the Wolfers-Price study has yet to undergo formal peer review, three independent experts interviewed by the Times, plus common sense and the sniff test, all say the study is more believable than Stern's pronouncement about the league's own findings.

Putting aside the league's self-interest in denying bias, Wolfers and Price used a much larger database of fouls and controlled for a huge number of variables, such as officials' different treatment of stars and rookies, players' roles and the different racial makeup of those who fill those roles -- for example: centers, who draw a lot of fouls, are disproportionately white -- home vs. road calls and so on. The league didn't.

"We find that black players receive around 0.12-0.20 more fouls per 48 minutes played (an increase of 2-4 percent) when the number of white referees officiating a game increases from zero to three," Wolfers and Price write. They also report a decrease in effectiveness, as measured by various standard basketball stats, for players in games officiated by two or three referees of the other race, the Times reports.

"Basically, it suggests that if you spray-painted one of your starters white, you'd win a few more games," Wolfers said. And sure enough, Wolfers and Price found that during the 13 seasons of their study, teams with the greater share of playing time by white players had a winning percentage of .514.

That might mean you have to be a better player to be white and get playing time in the NBA than you'd have to be if you were black. Even if that's true -- and again that seems counterintuitive based on what we know about the way the rest of the world works -- it doesn't discount the officiating-bias theory. Both could be true.

This column is a proponent of the theory that not a single conversation, interaction or transaction occurs in the United States without race playing at least some small role. It would be ridiculous to think that in the racially charged atmosphere of the NBA, a league with an overwhelming majority of black players and white fans and ownership, racial bias would be completely absent in the work of the referees, who are themselves majority white.

NBA president for basketball operations Joel Litvins told the Times, "I think the analysis that we did can stand on its own." But the league won't release its data so it can be studied independently. That's a strange definition of standing on its own.

I have in my hand irrefutable evidence of our innocence in this matter, the league is saying. You'll have to trust me on that, but why would I lie?

The NBA cites its confidentiality agreement with the referees, calling the data a personnel matter, since it's used in training, but the league could get around that problem easily by redacting names. It should.

Nobody's accusing the NBA of being a hotbed of racism here. The bias that's evident in the study is an artifact of the subtle racial bias that permeates our society.

The NBA is a crucible of black-white race relations, and in many ways has been a leader in that area. Stern's disingenuous denial that racial bias exists in the officiating is out of character for a commissioner who is generally thoughtful and sensitive when it comes to race, even if some of his policies, such as the dress code and the age minimum, leave him open to charges of racial bias.

The NBA should release its detailed officiating data and let independent researchers study the issue of racial bias, not because the NBA has a problem it needs to fix, but because it provides a fascinating laboratory to study an important social issue.

Meantime, the Times quotes two veteran African-American players, Mike James of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Alan Henderson of the Philadelphia 76ers, saying they've never noticed any racial bias in the foul calls, and I daresay not many fans have ever noticed it either. I haven't.

But you'd have to search far and wide to find an NBA fan who hasn't noticed and complained about the bias in favor of All-Stars and against scrubs and rookies. That's a problem that has driven fans away, and it's one the NBA should study and fix.

Subtle racial bias in American society is an issue that's bigger than any basketball league. Having one set of rules for all of its players is not.

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Quarterfinals as Finals, again [PERMALINK]

The Phoenix Suns rid themselves of the flealike Los Angeles Lakers by winning Game 5 of their opening-round series Wednesday night, and the San Antonio Spurs disposed of the Denver Nuggets by winning Game 5 of a series that was tougher than that 4-1 tally makes it sound.

So for all the off-season maneuvering to fix the problem that came up last year when the Spurs and Dallas Mavericks met in the second round in what looked like the real NBA Finals, this year the Suns and Spurs will meet in the second round in what looks like the real NBA Finals.

And that's just good old-fashioned funny.

That Spurs-Mavericks quarterfinal series turned out not to be the real NBA Finals last year, of course. The Miami Heat saw to that by beating Dallas in the real real NBA Finals. But it looked that way at the time.

Spurs-Suns looks that way this time because the other party in the trio of favorites, the Dallas Mavericks, is in Oakland fighting for its life in Game 6 against the Golden State Warriors Thursday night. The Warriors lead that series 3-2.

Even if the Mavs survive by winning Thursday and then again at home Saturday, they stand an excellent chance of entering their next series, against the Houston-Utah winner, exhausted and emotionally drained. And if the Mavs manage to win this series and then get by the next one, they'll get the Suns-Spurs winner in the semifinals.

Win or lose over the next three days -- and I'd say winning is still a real possibility -- the Dallas Mavericks don't look like a title contender anymore. We'll see if somebody in the Eastern Conference has something to say about whether the Suns vs. the Spurs is the real NBA Finals.

Previous column: Nowitzki, just in time

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