Previously Established Racial Bias in NBA Officiating Has Vanished, Study Says

Ben LeibowitzCorrespondent IIIFebruary 26, 2014

Feb 21, 2014; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Atlanta Hawks shooting guard Louis Williams (3) talks to referee Scott Twardoski after being called for a foul in the fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Is racial bias from NBA referees a thing of the past?

According to a Brookings Institution study conducted by Devin G. Pope, Joseph Price and Justin Wolfers, the answer to that question appears to be a resounding yes.

The previous research, published in 2007 and conducted by Wolfers and Price, found that white referees called more fouls against black players, while black referees called fouls at a higher rate against white players, per Alan Schwarz of the New York Times.

The researchers found that the average amount of fouls called per 48 minutes against white players was connected to the amount of white referees. If more white referees were calling the game, fewer fouls were called against white players. Check out the graphs in Christopher Ingraham’s piece for The Washington Post.

Former NBA Commissioner David Stern was critical of the study’s findings, saying that racism “doesn’t exist in the NBA,” per the Associated Press (via The Washington Post).

“This is a bum rap, that’s all,” Stern added. “This is a bum rap, and if it is going to be laid on us it should be laid on us by basis of some people who are purported to be scholars in a publication that purports to hold us up to a higher standard -- a little bit more should have been done.”

Stern was quick to denounce the study as a means of protecting the league against potential lawsuits and "fear of litigation," according to Ingraham.

After the NBA conducted its own study on the matter, however, they came to the same conclusion in the eyes of Wolfers.

“Their own study agrees with our conclusion,” Wolfers said, per Lester Munson of ESPN. “A referee is more likely to blow the whistle and call a foul against a player of another race.”

Wolfers added, “After refusing my requests for weeks, the NBA was unexpectedly gracious enough to share its material with me. And I am now able to say that their critical statements are contradicted by the league consultant’s own statistical output.”

Considering that the NBA's own study uncovered similar findings, it's safe to assume that there was some degree of racial bias at play on the hardwood.

The NBA claims that “absolutely nothing” has changed as far as its own policies in terms of trying to eliminate racial bias, while Wolfers says it’s “unlikely” that was the case, per Ingraham's article. Ingraham also added the following wrinkle:

If NBA did indeed make an effort to correct referee bias, the latest study shows that they succeeded spectacularly. This could be a huge win for the organization, and there could be lessons here for others looking to reduce their own exposure to bias.

But it’s more interesting to take the NBA at their word. Even if there was no explicit policy change in response to the original study, the referees would have known about it – the front-page newspaper coverage and widespread discussion on major news networks and the Internet would have seen to that. In this scenario, simply becoming aware of their implicit biases caused the refs to alter their decision-making process.

Regardless of whether the NBA implemented changes as a means of weeding out racial bias, or referees were merely aware of the original study which shifted the narrative, it appears now that the previously established bias no longer exists.

Fans will likely continue to shout obscenities at refs through their television screens, but the Brookings research now shows that racial bias isn't a factor anymore in how officials call games.

It is rather alarming to note that this was a tangible issue in the mid-to-late 2000s, but changes have been made (conscious or otherwise) to eradicate racism from referees. This should only help improve the NBA's reputation following the infamous Tim Donaghy scandal.

Referees from all sports have an unenviable, thankless job. This study shows that they will continue to get better.


For more on this topic, make sure to check out Christopher Ingraham's piece for The Washington Post, as well as the paper by Pope, Price and Wolfers.