Skip to content

Referee race bias study back in news, still not telling us much we didn’t already know

Dec 8, 2010, 4:30 PM EDT

NBA Finals Game 3: Los Angeles Lakers v Boston Celtics Getty Images

Remember back a couple years ago, two researchers released a study saying that black officials called slightly fewer penalties on black players and white officials called fewer penalties on white players? Then the NBA league office blew up and went into full defensive spin mode — and likely won the public relations battle — saying that was not true.

Well, the study is back in the news as it got run in the prestigious Quarterly Journal of Economics, which meant some news outlets ran the story again with new interviews. Which means that the next round of league denials is likely on the way.

What the authors were arguing is that people make split-second decisions and race helps influence those decisions. The authors told Zach Lowe at SI’s Point Forward they used basketball referees as the example in part because there was a lot of data to look back on. The NBA has argued that data and the study are flawed because they just looked at refereeing crews and many of those are racially mixed. The authors say that even if you cut the study back to only all white or all black crews you get the same results.

The authors say they got the idea for the study from Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink.” Which I would suggest reading, it’s a fascinating concept. Boiled down in a nutshell, the idea of the book is that we all have unconscious, ingrained biases – likes and dislikes, if you will — and we make quick instinctive decisions based on them. We all do it. Gladwell’s most famous example is the studies showing tall people tend to be more successful and move up corporate ladders faster. Ask us if we think tall people are smarter or better leaders and we laugh, but we make quick gut decisions about people and things — decisions that can make or break what we choose — based on these inherent biases. And with that tall people win out.

Which is to say, no white NBA referee is thinking, “I’m going to let Kevin Love get away with that foul because he’s white.” They certainly are not doing it with Timofey Mozgov. But NBA referees have to make a thousand instantaneous decisions a game and their inherent biases are bound to slip in a little.

The issue (as Henry Abbott points out in really the definitive post on this issue) the authors want to get at is not basketball, but how these same issues impact law enforcement, education, a host of other much more serious areas. Basketball was simply to be a proving ground that they do exist.

And despite the league’s protestations, no doubt they do. Because basketball and sports reflect society at large.

Featured video

Stephenson goes elsewhere for his future
Top 10 NBA Player Searches
  1. K. Love (4768)
  2. L. James (3681)
  3. A. Wiggins (3648)
  4. R. Allen (3585)
  5. E. Bledsoe (3104)
  1. K. Bryant (3058)
  2. D. Rose (2996)
  3. C. Boozer (2488)
  4. L. Stephenson (2476)
  5. K. Marshall (2441)