NBA: Claims of racial officiating bias 'flat-out wrong'

Updated: May 4, 2007, 10:42 PM ET
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The NBA responded strongly and angrily Wednesday to a front-page story in The New York Times alleging a racial bias in officiating, saying the study the report was based upon was wrong and contained flawed statistical methodology.

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"The story is based upon a paper that is flat-out wrong in its conclusions, and we're disappointed that they ran the story this way," NBA president of basketball operations Joel Litvin told ESPN.com, saying The Times ignored data the league provided to the newspaper to support its argument.

The report in Wednesday's Times said an academic study of NBA officiating by a University of Pennsylvania assistant professor and Cornell graduate student found that white referees called fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players. The study also found that black officials called fouls more frequently against white players than black, but noted that that tendency was not as pronounced.

Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor of business and public policy at Penn's Wharton School, and Joseph Price, a Cornell graduate student in economics, said the difference in calls "is large enough that the probability of a team winning is noticeably affected by the racial composition of the refereeing crew."

NY Times reacts
A statement from Tom Jolly, sports editor of The New York Times:

"We are confident that our article fairly and accurately reflects the findings of the Wolfers-Price study, and fairly and accurately reflects the NBA's response to that study. Over the course of three weeks of reporting, Alan Schwarz spent several hours meeting with NBA. executives to discuss the Wolfers-Price study and the league's own subsequent study.

As we reported, all of the data that was made available to us from both studies was reviewed at our request by three independent experts: Ian Ayres of Yale Law School, David Berri of California State University-Bakersfield and Larry Katz of Harvard University. They uniformly agreed that the Wolfers-Price study reflected a solid analytical approach and that the NBA's study was significantly flawed.

In fact, after studying the NBA. data, Katz, one of the nation's most respected economists, told us: "It was so poorly presented that it was hard to figure out what they were doing. And to the extent you could figure out what they were doing, there was such incoherence you couldn't draw any conclusions from it."

The study, conducted by reviewing box scores over a 13-season span through 2004, found that the racial makeup of a three-man officiating crew affected calls by up to 4½ percent. But the box scores only show the referees' names and contain no information about which official made a particular call -- an information gap that the league seized upon in attacking the report.

"We conducted our own study with experts in mathematics and statistical analysis, and those experts, looking at far superior data that included 148,000 calls, concluded unequivocally that there was no racial bias in officiating," Litvin said. "You cannot use box scores to do a definitive analysis of whether race affects an individual action. We have the information on specific referees and the specific calls they made, and they don't."

Litvin further said that a previous version of the same study, published in March 2006, came to the exact opposite conclusion. "I'm quoting from that report here, Litvin said, "and it says it found 'no own-race bias on the part of referees.' "

Litvin also said it was curious that The Times saw fit to publish the article, which was an exclusive, even though the Wolfers-Price report has not yet been the subject of peer review. He also said The Times was inaccurate when it said the league withheld data, and he took particular issue with a quote from Wolfers that "if you spray-painted one of your starters white, you'd win a few more games."

"We gave them underlying data on every single one of the 148,000 calls we looked at," Litvin said. "We gave them data, computations, answered questions, and at the end of the day they chose to ignore a significant amount of what we gave them. Why? I don't know."

The NBA has an observer at each game and closely monitors its officials, who are required to file reports after each game they work and are expected to be able to explain each potentially controversial call they have made.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.