Bet on It: Race Skews Referee Calls in the NBA

L.A. Laker Derek Fisher with referee Steve Javie.

L.A. Laker Derek Fisher with referee Steve Javie. Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Last year, Justin Wolfers set the basketball world abuzz when he co-authored a study that showed racial bias among NBA referees. Coaches, players and refs piled on to debate its central conclusion, namely that officials tend to favor players of their own ethnic backgrounds. Over the course of a season, the study reported, a white referee will call more fouls on a black player and vice versa.

Wolfers took that as a call to put up or shut up. The Wharton professor took his statistics to Las Vegas — virtually — and bet on them. He calculated what would happen if you placed money on the outcome of NBA games solely on the racial makeup of the players and the referees.

What would happen, Wolfers reports, is that you'd turn a profit.

"Our estimate is that the outcome of up to 3 percent of all games would have been different with a different refereeing crew," Wolfers says. "Some people feel that 3 percent's not a lot. Some feel outraged that even that many games could be affected by something so arbitrary. But when you talk to team owners, if you could guarantee them another 3 percent of wins, they will tell you directly that's worth millions of dollars to them."

The NBA has questioned the results of the original study. Wolfers credits the referees for being highly trained and dedicated to getting calls right. What he'd like to see is an acknowledgment from the NBA that bias exists in its workplaces, just at it does in others. He'd like to work with the sports league to improve the situation on the court.

Some evidence suggests that "mixed-race refereeing crews may do a better job than either all-black or all-white crews," he says. "A mixed-race crew acts as a bit of a discipline on this. So I think there's definitely something that could be done."

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