Players, NBA dismiss racial bias in officiating

5/4/2007 - NBA

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

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.

"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.

"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

"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

"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,

"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.