NBA's Stern Rejects Report on Referees' Bias
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Pro basketball's biggest news this week is the Golden State Warriors. They scored a huge upset over Dallas in six playoff games. But there's also news about referees. Two researchers analyzed hundreds of thousands of NBA foul calls. They say white referees were tougher on black players, and they also found black refs somewhat tougher on white players.
Yesterday, NPR listeners heard a New York Times reporter who broke that story. This morning, we'll here from the NBA commissioner, David Stern. He says the league did its own study with better information than the academics.
Mr. DAVID STERN (Commissioner, National Basketball Association): They delve from the box score, which doesn't identify which referee makes the call.
INSKEEP: Although they say that they had an idea of how many white or black referees were on the floor at any time and allow some control over.
Mr. STERN: Right. And so, if there were three officials and two of them were white, they scribe a white coup to that. And if there were 60 calls in the game, they imputed 20 to each of the officials. We actually have the data of individual officials and individual calls for the last two and half years. And so, we ran the data and came up with something which says quite starkly that there is no bias amongst NBA officials.
INSKEEP: And is the soul difference, as you see, between your study other that they studied for more years, that you got the specific identities of the officials at hand as you run these numbers.
Mr. STERN: Oh, not that they studied it for more years. They don't have the individual calls. That's quite a difference. But even beyond that, you can't account for a player who leans in, who has a certain style. It's very hard.
INSKEEP: What are some of the factors that you think really may effect whether a particular player gets called for fouls a little more often or a little less often.
Mr. STERN: Whether he commits fouls a little more often or a little less often. We tracked every single foul, and we track whether the referee is correct or incorrect.
INSKEEP: Based on…
Mr. STERN: Based upon on review by an official employed by us who we call observers, and based upon a review of the observers by someone called the group supervisor, and then based upon an additional review of some people who are not on our staff so we can be satisfied.
INSKEEP: You know that people will say, for example, that stars can get away with a little (unintelligible).
Mr. STERN: We've - now you're lapsing into people say. And the reality is, if you do the statistical analysis, which we have done, based upon the stars, there's no statistical variation between the calls they get. Our referees are the most reviewed, most ranked, and most rated. And that's why we take exception to what The Times did here and take exception to your acceptance of that.
INSKEEP: I'm here asking questions. I'm here trying to learn a little bit.
Mr. STERN: No, you were the bias, but it's okay. Most people are, and no one likes officials. The fans complain about them, the players complain about them, and the media assumes that we don't hold them to the standard that we do.
INSKEEP: You're assuming that I'm assuming things, is that correct?
Mr. STERN: Yes.
INSKEEP: What are you assuming that I assume?
Mr. STERN: I'm assuming, when you said to me, come on, you mean they don't favor stars? Unless I misheard.
INSKEEP: I'm just curious if there is some subtle factor like you yourself earlier in the interview said it may depend on the style of a player, whether he leans in a little bit more.
Mr. STERN: That means whether the style means the draws more fouls, because he actually commits more fouls.
INSKEEP: And when sports fans say things, as they have in the past, like, oh, Michael Jordan always got an extra step compared to everybody else out there, you found that to be wrong.
Mr. STERN: Correct.
INSKEEP: He didn't get an extra step?
Mr. STERN: Correct.
INSKEEP: Then, of course, basketball purest could say everybody in the NBA gets an extra step.
Mr. STERN: That may be, that referees do adjust into habits of individual players. I think that's probably a fair assertion.
INSKEEP: Are there any racial fault lines that you have to deal with in some subtle way in your job?
Mr. STERN: Yes. I would say that the racial fault line is that we were the first sport to be identified as predominantly African-American. We understand societal predispositions very well. And we do understand that African-Americans may be discriminated against subconsciously, whether they're waiting for taxis or whether they're stopped by police, etc. I'm persuaded that sports is the one place where the rules are pretty well set out, where fans are equal. And if you got game or you're a good official, you make it here, whether you're white or you're black.
INSKEEP: Well, Commissioner Stern, thanks very much.
Mr. STERN: Thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: David Stern of the National Basketball Association. You can hear our interview with The New York Times reporter who broke this story at npr.org.