Foul Play

, Don Irvine, Leave a comment

A new academic study of the National Basketball Association which is in the middle of its playoff series concludes that there is a racial bias when it comes to fouls called by referees.

The study by Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor of business and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Joseph Price, a Cornell graduate student in economics looked at box scores of NBA games from 1991-2004 and found that white referees call fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players. They also found that black referees show a similar but lesser bias against white players when calling fouls and that the difference in rates in which fouls are called “is large enough that the probability of a team winning is noticeably affected by the racial composition of the refereeing crew assigned to the game.”

This is akin to accusing the referees of racial profiling when it comes to calling fouls which is a ridiculous notion in my opinion. Have either Wolfers or Price actually tried to referee a basketball game? I have and it was hard. I was running up and down the court trying looking for violations and fouls and the last thing on my mind was the skin color of the player. The game moves too fast for anyone to think about that aspect of a ballplayer.

As for the study, the researchers certainly combed through a lot of data, 600,000 foul calls and were able to determine that blacks had 83 percent of the playing time and that 68 percent of the referees were white to get to the nub of the supposed problem that black players received 2 ½ to 4 ½ percent more foul calls than white players based on a 48 minute game. What is left unsaid though is who they were fouling, white players or black players? Well considering that the league is north of 80 percent black it isn’t likely that they are overwhelmingly fouling white players. How can the researchers say that black players are receiving more foul calls based on white referee discrimination when the person they are fouling is more likely to be black? According to an unscientific study conducted by Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan of the number of free throws attempted per game over the past 11 years the top 5 players were black and in most cases 9 out of the top 10 players were black. Once again where’s the discrimination?

Even the venerable New York Times which tried to validate the study struggled when they interviewed two current NBA players, Mike James of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Alan Henderson of the Philadelphia 76ers who said that they didn’t think black or white officials had treated them differently. In this day and age when using the race card is all too common one would think that the players and supposed victims would be the ones who are crying “foul” not some economist who actually prefers baseball to basketball.

While the empirical evidence may show that black players receive a few more foul calls than white players, the authors seemed to have ignored the fact that all fouls are not created equal and to base a study that purports to show a racial bias without watching game films makes it a study worth ignoring.

Don Irvine is the chairman of Accuracy in Media.

 

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