Friday, May 04, 2007

More on Race and the NBA

Yesterday, Mike summarized the findings of an academic article that found that white NBA referees call fouls more frequently on black players than on non-black players. (The finding works in reverse, but not nearly as strongly.) The NBA's defense against this academic paper, according to the Times article, is that they commissioned an analysis that uses a proprietary dataset which found no evidence of discrimination. The mere fact that that's what the NBA wanted their study to find doesn't automatically mean that the study was biased, but I'm skeptical.

The academic article was based on publicly available data, which limited them to counting fouls called in a game and matching that to the race of the refereeing crew. Thus, they correlated fouls called on black and non-black players by referee crews that are all-black, 2 blacks, one black, and no blacks. The evidence of race-based calls is, thus, indirect. It would be nice if unconflicted researchers could look at a data set that is based on individual refs and their calls. The NBA claims that they cannot release the data that they collect on each ref because of privacy concerns -- the refs could be personally identified from the data. This strikes me as nonsense. Researchers in tax policy, for example, can avail themselves of a process by which they are given access to data on taxpayers that are detailed enough to reveal the identity of the taxpayer (corporate or individual) so long as the researchers maintain taxpayer confidentiality in their use of the data and so long as the published results are sufficiently aggregated to conceal taxpayer identities.

Clearly, the NBA -- which has known about this paper for over a year -- could have done something like this on an ad hoc basis. Why wouldn't they? From the discussions on ESPN yesterday, my take is that everyone is simply afraid of the results. The concern, of course, is that the NBA does not want to be labeled a racist organization. Given that the racial composition of the referee corps is overwhelmingly white (68%), while the players are overwhelmingly black (83% of minutes were played by blacks), their concern is perhaps understandable. Players and league officials alike were quick to say that they've never even suspected racism among officials, which is good to know but explicitly not the authors' point.

One might ask why the NBA should not want to find out whether calls are race-based, if for no other reason than to reconsider their recruitment and hiring strategies for referees. According to the authors of the paper, after all, the differences in calls can amount to a two-game difference in won-lost record over the course of a season. Ask this year's LA Clippers if that difference matters. My guess is that the league's ignorance-is-bliss policy could simply be based on the belief that implicit bias is almost inherently impossible for them to correct, precisely because it is unconscious and automatic. If they cannot fix it, even in good faith, maybe they'd rather not have to admit that it exists.

11 comments:

egarber said...

Today's Washington Post has a story relating to player skepticism of the study.

Apparently, the league was able to run a study based on individual refs.

Here's a blurb:

Wolfers and Price analyzed officiating crews, based on boxscores, not individual referees. The NBA, after getting a draft copy of the paper last year, did its own study. Using data from November 2004 to January 2007, the league reviewed some 148,000 calls along with which official made each call.

"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."

Michael C. Dorf said...

In order for the NBA counter-study to be credible, there needs to be some explanation for why the racial effect isn't LARGER when one looks at referee-specfic calls. So far I haven't seen any.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

That is the study to which I referred in my posting. Again, I'm skeptical because the NBA basically hired a company with an ongoing relationship with the league to do a study attacking Wolfers' study. Why not give the data -- under a strict confidentiality agreement -- to Wolfers, or perhaps to another unconflicted academic?

Moreover, a study covering a smaller number of games (making it "more robust and current than the data relied upon by Professor Wolfers" ???) that finds no evidence of race-based calls is hardly the end of the story. It does not explain the results of the Wolfers study, among other things. Are Wolfers' results now to be dismissed as simply a statistical oddity?

Again, the NBA's panicky spin is understandable. It simply amounts to misdirection and seems more than a bit disingenuous.

egarber said...

Help me understand.

Was the basic method in the Wolfer study something like this?

Entire crew calls were reviewed, and then some sort of statistical correlation was made between calls for / against white / black players and the make up of the crew?

Meaning that if a game is roughly two-thirds biased against black players, that statistically means the crew was probably at least two-thirds white? I know it wouldn't be exactly those percentages, but I'm just trying to get a feel for the direction of the correlation.

Sobek said...

Neil kind of touched on this, but assuming the Wolfer study is correct, and that the NBA study is not, what's the proposed remedy? Express racial discrimination in hiring?

Barry said...

To begin with, the NBA is already suffering through a referee issue, what with suspending the ref involved in the incident with Tim Duncan (an inquisitive mind might wonder if the timing of the reprt's release is some how related).

Secondly, it seems like the Wolfers/Price study wouldn't be too hard to replicate and might also be easily extended to other potential bias analysis. For example, is there bias toward or against foreign players? Is there bias for or against teams with better records?

I agree with Neil - if the NBA really wanted to figure this out, it wouldn't be terribly hard or expensive. After all, they already do data collection to grade their refs somehow.

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