Players, NBA dismiss racial bias in officiating

Updated: May 4, 2007, 10:41 PM ET
Associated Press

Kobe Bryant says he's never noticed any evidence of racial bias when it comes to NBA officiating.

"I think I've gotten more techs from black refs than white refs," the Los Angeles Lakers star joked Wednesday. "That's reverse racism probably."

"I think I've gotten more techs from black refs than white refs."
-- Lakers star Kobe Bryant

Bryant, LeBron James and four other NBA players dismissed an academic study that found evidence of racial bias in referees' calls, saying they've never experienced it. The NBA also refuted the study, saying its own analysis showed no racial bias in officiating.

According to an upcoming paper by a University of Pennsylvania professor and a Cornell graduate student, white referees called fouls against black players at a higher rate than they did against white players.

Their study also found that black officials called fouls on white players more frequently than they did against blacks, but the disparity wasn't as great.

"We obviously discuss officiating and our feelings toward it," said Utah Jazz guard Derek Fisher, president of the NBA players' association. "But I don't ever recall it being a racially motivated type of conversation where we felt like there were certain guys that had it out for me or him or whoever just because of the color of our skin.

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"I don't know that I've ever really felt that there was a racial component to officiating."

James put it this way: "It's stupid."

Chicago Bulls veteran forward P.J. Brown said: "Somebody's got too much time on their hands."

That misses the point, said Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School and co-author of the study.

"This is not a view that one set of people hates another set of people. This is implicit, unconscious biases," said Wolfers, who conducted the study with Joseph Price, a graduate student in economics at Cornell.

"You see two players [collide] on the floor and you have to call a block or a charge. Does the skin color of the players somehow shape how you interpret the signals your brain gives you?"

Analyzing NBA box scores from a 13-season span running through 2004, the study found that black players received fewer fouls per 48 minutes than white players, 4.33 to 4.97. But it also found that fouls on black players could increase as much as 4.5 percent in that time period "when the number of white referees on a crew went from zero to three."

Though the NBA is made up of predominantly black players, less than 40 percent of its officials are black and they are randomly assigned to games in three-person crews.

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."

"I don't think there's any prejudice or racial stereotype," the Bulls' Chris Duhon said. "I think all our officials are great. I don't think any of them are racist in any way. They just call the game. If it's a foul, it's a foul. If it's not, there's no call.

"I don't think it's possible to really be biased in your calls because if [you are], I think it would be way obvious if you're doing that."

Wolfers and Price analyzed officiating crews, based on boxscores, not individual referees.

After the NBA got a draft copy of the paper, it did its own study. Using data from 3,482 games from November 2004 through January 2007, the Segal Company, an outside consulting firm, reviewed more than 155,000 calls along with which official made each call. Race -- of either officials or players -- had no statistically significant bearing on the number of fouls called, according to the NBA study.

The NBA also analyzed data based on playing time. The more minutes played, the study found, the harder it became to find a pattern in fouls called against a player.

"The fact is there is no evidence of racial bias in foul calls made by NBA officials and that is based on a study conducted by our experts who looked at data that was far more robust and current than the data relied upon by Professor Wolfers," said Joel Litvin, president of league and basketball operations.

"The short of it is Wolfers and Price only looked at calls made by three-man crews. Our experts were able to analyze calls made by individual referees," Litvin said. "... This is a fundamental flaw in the Wolfers/Price analysis making it nearly impossible to determine if, in fact, race affects play calling."

But Wolfers said they compared the calls made by all-white officiating crews and all-black officiating crews, and the results were the same as in the overall study. The study also didn't verify the exact race of players and referees, saying, "We simply noted whether a player or referee appeared black, or not." But Wolfers said the sample was large enough so that wouldn't be a factor.

"That's a lot of diagnostic evidence," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "If you have a conclusive evidence you want to come out with, you can almost make statistics prove what you want to prove.

"If you go in with that it's about race, maybe you find the things you're looking for."

Former NBA star Charles Barkley said on TNT, "The thing that bothered me most is these guys didn't even go to the game. They looked at box scores."

Union chief Billy Hunter hasn't read the study, but said he wasn't surprised by its results. There is bias everywhere in society, Hunter said, so why should the NBA be immune?

But Hunter also said he's never gotten any complaints about discrimination.

"No, never heard, never gotten one," he said. "I know [commissioner David Stern] wouldn't tolerate any conscious bias, racist act by a referee or by anybody else."

Stu Jackson, the league's disciplinarian for on-court actions, agreed.

"I can say I've never heard a coach or a player or a team official reference race as a reason why they didn't approve of a ref's performance," Jackson said.

Wolfers and Price are to present the paper at meetings of the Society of Labor Economists on Friday and the American Law and Economics Association on Sunday. They hope it will eventually be published in an economic journal.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press