Thursday, May 03, 2007

Race Discrimination by Basketball Referees

As reported yesterday in the NY Times and elsewhere, a new study by Joseph Price and Justin Wolfers finds statistically significant "own-race preferences" in the calling of fouls by NBA referees. In other words, white referees call fewer fouls on white players than black referees do, and black referees call fewer fouls on black players than white referees do. (Because of the small number of Asian and Latino NBA players, they get coded as "white.") The study also finds that on average opposite-race referees result in poorer performance of players in every statistical category except free throw percentage, suggesting that the bias affects not just foul calls but other aspects of the game.

These results are arresting in part because they indicate that the form of racial bias at work here is simple affinity bias rather than stereotyping. NBA fans (of which I count myself one) are familiar with racial stereotypes from basketball's tv announcers: Black players are more likely to be described as "athletic," while white players are more likely to be described as getting by on "effort" or "basketball IQ." But if stereotyping were at work, one would not necessarily expect the race of the referee to matter. Indeed, one might think that the stereotype of white players as clever, hard-working oafs would lead to more foul calls: Regardless of the referee's race, he or she (yes there are some female refs) would likely be inclined to see the typical white player as committing clumsy fouls against the more-graceful typical black player. Yet the numbers don't bear that out.

Instead, the authors of the study find a simple matter of affinity. The white refs "like" white players more than they like black players, and vice-versa (though less markedly) for the black refs. These feelings appear to be quite deeply rooted and are almost certainly sub-conscious. The authors cite a 1988 study that found that referees call a larger number of fouls on teams wearing black jerseys! It's hard to imagine a professional referee saying to himself: "That looked like it may have been a foul. Yes, it must have been because the player's jersey is black."

What should we make of these findings? Here I'll give the last word to Price and Wolfers, who conclude as follows:
These results are striking given the level of racial equality achieved along other dimensions in the NBA and the high level of accountability and monitoring under which the referees operate. Thus, while the external validity of these results remains an open question, they are at least suggestive that implicit biases may play an important role in shaping our evaluation of others, particularly in split-second high-pressure decisions. That is, while these results may be of interest to those intrigued by the sporting context, we emphasize them instead as potentially suggestive of similar forces operating in a range of other contexts involving rapid subjective assessments.


Paul Scott said...

I'd start by using nothing but female referees and see if the affinity bias is eleminated, or mitigated. That failing, I'd hire nothing but Latino and Asian referees - they were "coded" as white, but if it is a genetic affinity bias, that is likely not to be true.

If that fails and if, by that time, referees cannot be replaced by androids, I'd hire nothing but blind referees. This would eleminate the affinity bias and really would make reality out of most fan's currrent beliefs anyway.

Amos Blackman said...

From what I understand, there is already a fair amount of social cognitive work on implicit bias in non-conscious and split-second decisionmaking, and that it usually shows negative beliefs and attitudes towards the racial minority, not affinity-bias. See Jerry Kang, Trojan Horses of Race, 118 Harv. L. Rev. 1489 (2005).

I wonder if the NBA paper authors looked at any of this work, and if they have ideas why there is a different result on the court. They suggest that the NBA is more overtly equalized than other forums, which causes me to wonder if implicit bias could switch from minority-prejudice to affinity-bias when overt signals regarding disparate worth disappear.

This has a troubling logical but paradoxical conclusion, though. If implicit bias remains regardless of overt signals, even if that bias is only affinity bias, in any significantly majority-minority scenario (unlike the NBA), the majoritarian members will be preferred in noticeably greater numbers, leading to overt signals concerning worth, which would lead to... prejudice.

Now I'm depressed.

Michael C. Dorf said...

A propos of Amos's points, one of the oddest things here is that the negative attitudes towards black people (as demonstrated, for example, on the tests you can check out at
are substantially mitigated by having people view positive black role models before the test, including Michael Jordan. So the effect ought to be mitigated substantially for white referees who are constantly exposed to such people. Or perhaps the problem is that being an NBA ref exposes one not only to good guys like humanitarian Dikembe Mutombo but also to hotheads like Ron Artest. Yet that wouldn't explain why white referee Joey Crawford has an apparent vendetta against mild-mannered Tim Duncan. So I'm not depressed, just puzzled.

Sobek said...

I wonder if you get a different result by parsing out the results based on player and reputation. For example, if you isolate the data for black refs and black players, is there a significant difference between calls against Ron Artest and someone with a better image? (I'd give a specific example, but I know so little about basketball, except that Ron Artest apparently punched someone, and it's a foul to stand within three feet of Michael Jordan).

I don't know any basketball players, but the refs surely do, and I imagine they look up to some of them, which might skew the results.

Tam Ho said...

Sobek - I'm a bit late on this, but for what it's worth, Price and Wolfers's data set was large enough (box scores for all regular-season games from 91/92 to 03/04), to control for those types of factors, e.g.:

"Customer-based discrimination" (which I assume means playing to the crowd), "height, weight, position, all-star status, and whether a player is a starter, and whether his team is out-of-contention." They also controlled for "player fixed effects as well as other unobservable differences between black and white players" in addition to "referee fixed effects which measure the differential propensity of each referee to call more or less fouls," the degree to which a player is constrained by the 6-foul limit (due to his minutes - think role players), or if he was sent in specifically to commit fouls, and many other factors. Check out pp. 8-10 of the study.

The authors also argue that it is implausible to interpret the data as evidence that it is the players responding to the referees (p. 12) Of course, I don't think the NBA would support either interpretation.

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