Recently, there has been a wide-open discussion in the media about a study that suggests a disproportionate number of calls against black players are being made by white officials in the NBA. ESPN.com alone has carried at least six articles on the study, which was written by Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor of business and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, and Joseph Price, a Cornell graduate student in economics.
Is it true? The NBA adamantly denies it. ESPN's Stephen A. Smith said on "Outside the Lines" that there is no way race plays a role in the way officials make their calls. Many academics, however, support the study's findings.
In the wake of the officiating concern and a handful of other matters in contention in the NBA recently, it's worth highlighting the bigger picture about the league's role in the issue of race.
On Wednesday, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida published the 2006-07 NBA Racial and Gender Report Card. I am its author, along with Horacio Ruiz and Marina Bustamante. Among other things, the report card points out that African-Americans make up 75 percent of the league's players, which is up from the past two seasons. (The low point in the last decade was in 2004-05, with 73 percent.)
I know from previous experience that I will receive phone calls and e-mails from fans around the country asking why I don't criticize the NBA for a lack of opportunities it provides for white players. Those fans miss my point.
The reality is that the NBA, from the day that David Stern became commissioner in 1984, has been the model for doing things right on the issue of race in professional sports. It is the only major men's professional sports league that has ever had an African-American franchise owner (Robert Johnson of Charlotte) and African-American CEOs or team presidents. Even before Stern took over, the NBA was the first major pro sports league to make an African-American a head coach (Bill Russell in 1966) and the first to make an African-American a general manager (Wayne Embry in 1971 in Milwaukee). Embry also became pro sports' first African-American team president in 1994 with Cleveland.
We correctly laud the progress made by the NFL with its recent head coaching hires. However, 40 percent of the head coaches in the NBA are African-American, and that's more than double the percentage of any other league. At the end of last season, the New York Giants hired Jerry Reese, giving the NFL a total of five African-Americans in positions the NFL says are the equivalent to general managers (some teams use titles like VP for player personnel). By contrast, there were eight African-American general managers in the NBA when the regular season ended last month.
Many celebrate the fact that two African-American head coaches faced each other in the 2007 Super Bowl -- the Colts' Tony Dungy and the Bears' Lovie Smith. That happened in the NBA's counterpart to the Super Bowl -- the NBA Finals -- all the way back in 1975 when K.C. Jones and the Washington Bullets met Al Attles and the San Francisco Warriors for the league championship. To date, four African-American head coaches have won NBA titles: Attles, Jones, Russell and Lenny Wilkens. Through the end of this season, the league has had 53 African-American head coaches. Major League Baseball is a distant second with a history that includes 25 managers of color, including African-Americans and Latinos.
So in that big-picture context, the possibility of an officiating bias based on race seems less consequential. Thirty-six percent of the referees in the NBA this season were either Latino or African-American, which puts the NBA far ahead of any other sport in that area. Is it possible that white referees make more calls against African-American players? Wolfers says it is more than a possibility. If he is right, his study tells us as much about society as it does about the NBA because there are so many other areas where this sort of "taste-based discrimination" happens, such as corporate executives making hiring and promotion decisions, or police officers, prosecutors and judges making decisions in which preconceived images may play a role in their "calls."
Such calls in the court have far more serious consequences than calls on the court.
Another small-picture issue in the NBA these days is the perception that an increase in the number of international players is bringing up the total of white players in the league. This year, international players made up 19 percent of the league's rosters, the same percentage they have held the last three seasons. But also it should be pointed out that of the 81 international players, 30 are players of color.
And yet another small-picture flash point about race and the NBA came in 2005 when the league drew some criticism over its dress code. I believed that policy was a statement about the image the NBA wanted to project, and should not have been interpreted as an anti-hip-hop, anti-African-American measure. The league wasn't asking players to dress differently in their everyday lives, but only when they went to work, where we are all expected to dress appropriately. I believe the dress code helps the league in an era when some fans might have difficulty identifying with NBA players because of their income, glamour and seeming ability to live whatever life they choose.
Maybe those issues -- refs' calls, the number of international players and the dress code -- might resonate more if the NBA didn't have such an overall leadership role in matters of race.
So as we look around at what Major League Baseball and the NFL and other sports are doing to better their opportunities for people of color in front offices and on the field, we need to remember that the NBA has been the industry leader and a great model for nearly two decades. Stern once articulated this goal to me: "When an African-American coach is hired and, more importantly, when a team fires an African-American, that nobody will notice." It is clear the NBA has reached that stage.
Not only has the NBA increased its numbers, but it has also tried to change attitudes through its diversity management training. (It was the first league to undertake that sort of program, back in 1997.) That has helped counter the perception that women and people of color in the NBA offices were hired simply to fill a quota rather than to help an organization be better and stronger.
The NBA surely isn't perfect, and questions involving the racial issue will be raised from time to time. Some will be justifiable; some won't. But, in the end, we should remember that the NBA is the best we have as a model in sport.
That's why the NBA got the first ever A+ for racial hiring practices in the 2006-07 NBA Racial and Gender Report Card issued Wednesday. The league set all-time records for people of color in the positions of league office professionals, team vice presidents and assistant coaches, as well as senior administrative and team professional positions.
So please, as you examine other smaller-focus items on race, keep the big picture in mind.
Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 12 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.