Big question about officials study: What if it's right?

Originally Published: May 4, 2007
By Lester Munson | Special to ESPN.com

Many questions are being asked -- some by the league itself -- about the massive study that found racial bias in foul calls in the NBA:

• How can the authors -- a highly-regarded Wharton School economist and a grad student -- claim bias when their data didn't include the race of the referee who made the call or the race of the player who was fouled?

• How important can the study be if the supposed bias accounts for only one-fifth of one foul per 48 minutes played? That's a difference of only about eight fouls per season for a player who plays 25 minutes per game.

• What about "no-calls"? Shouldn't the study have included incidents such as a white player flattening a black player after a three-point attempt in front of a white ref, sending the home crowd into apoplexy when no whistle is blown?

Those are good questions. But there's one question, perhaps the most important question, that no one seems to want to ask:

What if these economists are right?

The NBA and its referees certainly aren't asking it. They're in denial mode. They've been heaping scorn upon the study from the moment The New York Times first reported on it on Wednesday. They tout a second, considerably smaller study done by a statistical contractor the league hired and paid that (surprise, surprise) concludes there is no bias and all is well.

It's easy to understand why the NBA would fight back fiercely against a charge of bias. When more than 80 percent of the players in the league are black, the explosive issue of race is always lurking just below the surface of concerns about dress codes or hairstyles or choice of music.

But some things about the study cannot be ignored.

It is a massive piece of work that incorporates more than 600,000 foul calls over a 14-year span of regular-season games. Justin Wolfers and his co-author, Joseph Price, a graduate student at Cornell, worked and reworked their data, using the most sophisticated analytical techniques available. (Price had the idea; Wolfers had the standing, the experience and the computer power.)

By the time the Times made it public, the study had been tested and questioned by high-wattage intellects across the nation. At the University of Chicago, the home of an economics department that has won more Nobel Prizes than any other, Wolfers successfully defended his work in a seminar packed with brilliant academics. Wolfers deftly fielded questions from the likes of Richard Epstein and Cass Sunstein, two professors of law and economics whose own studies are recognized in universities and governments throughout the world.

According to Allen Sanderson, a sports economist at the University of Chicago, Wolfers himself is "one of the bright lights in the field of economics."

Still, Howard Pearl, an attorney and former federal prosecutor who has represented numerous NBA officials and led their union for many years, isn't buying it.

"It is a triumph of statistics over reality," Pearl says. "A [statistical] correlation does not prove causation. Of all the factors that can cause a referee to call a foul, race is a zero factor."

But Wolfers doesn't accuse the league's officials of redneck, malicious racism. He suggests that a more subtle, unconscious bias emerges when a referee must make an instant decision in a high-pressure atmosphere. The academic term is "taste-based discrimination," which is a notion that has been documented in the behavior of police officers, judges and others who must make decisions in racially diverse circumstances.

Wolfers is incredulous at the response to his study.

"There is no way the NBA study can be more in-depth than our study," he says. "We looked at 14 seasons, and I have now added the last three seasons as well."

In the Times article on Wednesday, three other economics professors agreed with Wolfers that his study has more credibility than the NBA's analysis.

"The NBA has given its study to three people, and all three people have agreed that it is incomprehensible," Wolfers says.

He concedes that his data told him only the racial makeup of the three-official crew at each game and not the race of the individual ref making each call. Wolfers says he asked the NBA for its data on each foul call and was rebuffed.

"I would be happy to add it to our study, but they will not share it with us," he says.

In answer to criticism that he didn't know the race of the ref making each foul call, Wolfers reworked his database, looking only at all-white crews and all-black crews.

"It's a smaller sample, but the outcome is the same," he says. "There is the same level of discrimination in the calls. The NBA has equated evidence of absence [of the race of the official] with an absence of evidence. The evidence is there, and it is clear."

Wolfers might be right. Unlike the NBA, he has no stake in the study's ramifications. His work will be published and recognized on the strength of its science and its technique, rather than its outcome. By contrast, the NBA can be viewed as trying to protect its product when it hires its own contractor to make a study of statistics.

So what should the NBA do in the wake of Wolfers' study?

• It should consider eliminating single-race officiating crews. The league already has elaborate schemes for rotation of officials. It would be relatively easy to include an affirmative action rule that requires diversity within each crew.

• It should give Wolfers the NBA's data on the race of each official making each call. That data is available, and Wolfers is willing to analyze it. "I told them I would come into their office, do the work with them watching, and give them the results under a confidentiality agreement," Wolfers says. "They were not interested."

• It should allow Wolfers to expand his study to include no-calls, three-second violations, traveling violations and technical fouls, and make a comprehensive determination about the fairness and integrity of officials' decisions.

Lester Munson is a Chicago journalist and lawyer who has been reporting on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry for 18 years.