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Calling Foul: Race and Basketball Officiating

I came across this article earlier this morning, and started to link it in my morning update.  But after looking closer, I think this issue deserves its own post and considerably more analysis.  Even thought this article has nothing directly to do with Kentucky, it certainly highlights a situation that can occur in the college ranks just as it does in the professional ones.

The article is about a study done by a University of Pennsylvania assistant professor and a Cornell graduate student for the Wharton School at UPenn who analyzed the box scores of NBA basketball games and found that the more white an officiating crew is, the more calls against black players there are.  They also found that the more black a crew is, the more fouls are called against white players, but to a lesser degree.

The research has yet to be subjected to peer review, so it isn't published yet.  The study was not able to correlate the calls made to the race of the official making those calls, because the NBA doesn't make that data available to the public.  The NBA has done its own study of referee calls by race which does correlate the calls to the race of the official, and claims that it's study does not reveal any significant racial component to the frequency of foul calls.

The Times article says that three independent experts reviewed both the material released by the NBA (which didn't include the data collected, which the NBA considers private) and the Wharton study, finding the Wharton study "far more sound."  It is worthwhile to note that the reviewers had the entire Wharton study, but none of the data from the NBA study, as I indicated above.

You can read the conclusions in the article itself, which are essentially that skin color seems to account for as much as 4.5% of foul calls in the NBA, as well as a commensurate impact on such game factors as scoring, turnovers, rebounds and assists.  Effectively, the study concludes that racial bias is significant enough to have an impact on the outcome of some games.

The NBA takes strong issue with the Wharton conclusions, and insists that its own study is far more dispositive of the issue and more reliable due to the availability of direct data about the official making the call.  They also claim that an earlier version of the Wharton paper concluded that there was no bias.

I have several observations about this news.  First is the way that it is treated in some media outlets.  It seems to me the Wharton study is automatically given more weight than the NBA study, despite the Wharton study's obvious deficiency of not being able to associate calls with the race of the official actually making them.  However, a certain amount of skepticism in this regard is certainly fair, since the NBA will not release its data.  

Still, the conclusion that the Wharton study is "far more sound" seems far-fetched to me, owing to the fact that it is impossible to make a conclusive determination due to the unavailability  to the reviewers of the actual NBA data.  However, no media outlet qualifies this characterization at all.  My view is that some in the sports media are interested and in fact desirous of reaching a conclusion of racial bias, whether or not it is fully supported by all the available evidence because frankly, it serves to validate their own beliefs.

Regarding the meat of the study itself, I really wouldn't dispute the observations that race appears to affect a very small percentage of NBA foul calls.  However, if we think critically about that conclusion, we might wonder if it is actually a racial bias, or a combination of racial and cultural factors.

When I used to play basketball among largely white groups, the game tended to be slower with more self-called fouls than when I used to play with more black guys.  Keep in mind that this is anecdotal information and by no means statistically sound like the Wharton study, and that it is a memory between 20 and 30 years old.  Still, my recollection is that black players tended to play a more aggressive, athletic game than whites as a general proposition.  As a result, when I played with mostly black players, you had to adjust your self-called fouls accordingly and play more physical ball.

It is possible and in fact likely in my opinion that black people and white people see the game played properly in a different way.  My perception in my playing days was that blacks seem to be more tolerant of contact and enjoy a more up-tempo game, whereas whites seem to be less tolerant of contact and prefer to play a bit more in the half court.  

Now, this is certainly not universally true, and one need look no further than our previous two coaches to see that.  Still, I liked Smith's more controlled style better than Pitino's, and I think the explanation for that lies in the type of basketball I played as a young man.  In other words, I have a bias toward a certain type of pace/style.

In recent years, the game has evolved toward a much faster pace and more tolerance for contact, palming, and other things that would formerly have been called as violations.  That would tend to explain the emphasis in officiating in recent years toward cleaning up inside play and disallowing the blatant carrying of the basketball that had allowed breathtaking crossovers.  

But older people like me remember when the game was played differently, and I would bet the preference for a somewhat slower pace would be found to correlate strongly with race and age.  What I am suggesting is, the bias the Wharton study discovered may be more closely correlated to a mental image of what good basketball is than the actual race of the players.

Now, far be it from me to try to disprove racial bias.  I am reasonably sure that it is a factor in the results also, if only at the subconscious level.  But is it as big a factor as the Wharton study found (2.5-4.5% isn't very big, I know, but bear with me), or can some of it be imputed to cultural and earlier life experience, and related more to the way a player plays than the race of the player?  We may never know, but we shouldn't accept these studies simplistically.  Critical thinking is the cornerstone of understanding.

So there you have it -- my take on another crossover between basketball and life.  One cannot help but wonder what a similar study of college basketball would show.

This story is drawing serious heat from the NBA, and from some sportswriters as well.  I think Kevin Hench of Fox makes a few worthwhile points, although I think his criticism of the research is a little simplistic.  But he is a sportswriter, n'est-ce pas?