Bad Calls: Race Bias on the Basketball Court? A new study finds evidence of racial bias in the foul calls of NBA referees. The authors of the study allege that white refs call more fouls against black players, and black refs call slightly more fouls on white players. Alan Schwarz has written an article about the controversial study.
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Bad Calls: Race Bias on the Basketball Court?

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Bad Calls: Race Bias on the Basketball Court?

Bad Calls: Race Bias on the Basketball Court?

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm NEAL CONAN in Washington.

Tomorrow's meeting of the Society of Labor Economists promises to be a bit more lively than usual. Two academics - Justin Wolfers and Joseph Price of the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell, respectively - will present a study that finds evidence of racial bias in foul calls of referees in the NBA.

White refs, they say, call more fouls against black players. To a lesser degree, black refs called more fouls on white ball players. A report on the study in yesterday's New York Times set off enormous controversy and reaction. It was written by Times staff writer Alan Schwarz, a familiar voice on this program. He joins us in a moment.

If you have questions about that study, about how its findings with what you see on the basketball court and in American society, give us a call - 800-989-8255. 800-989-TALK. Email is Or you can join in on our blog at

Alan Schwarz joins us from the Argo Network in New York City. He's the author most recently of "Once Upon a Game: Baseball's Greatest Memories." And Alan, I guess it's been a pretty couple of - busy couple of days for you.

Mr. ALAN SCHWARZ (Staffer, The New York Times; Author, "Once Upon a Game: Baseball's Greatest Memories"): Yeah, it's been a bit of a whirlwind over the past 36 hours. It's nice to catalyze debate, I just wish that the debate had raised our standards rather than lowered them.

CONAN: Well, what do you mean by that?

Mr. SCHWARZ: Well, I think that most - the reaction that we have seen at the New York Times has been 90 percent people just saying, I don't believe it. It's not - you know, I've never seen it, therefore, they're just stirring up trouble, as if we had written the story on the back of a napkin on Monday night.

We don't just print anything that crosses our desk. We saw this as something worthy of our review. We took a look at it. We said, okay. We sent it to three of the top minds in the country in this field - Ian Ayres of Yale, David Berri of Cal State-Bakersfield, and Larry Katz, the former chief economist at the labor department and the senior editor of The Journal of Quantitative Economics at Harvard University. And they all said that this was correct.

It is not a matter of interpretation whether there are more foul calls against white and black players depending on the race of the refereeing crew. It is a fact that was discovered. Now, we can talk about the interpretation of it. We can talk about how to handle, what to call it - what to do with anything at all about it. But it is an incontrovertible fact that people are not willing to simply accept.

CONAN: Well, you see a lot of responses from NBA players, some coaches as well who said, look. If this is happening, I don't see it.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Well, I think that - look, let's just assume that they're not just saying that because they fear retribution. Let's just assume they're saying that because they believe it's true, okay, which I think is very fair and very plausible. However, it has been shown that this type of implicit association bias or variance in behavior on the part of white and black people towards white and black people is not detectable by the people doing it or receiving it.

They are too close to the situation, and therefore they have no way of telling whether what happened was a result of racial bias or not. It's too small. It's too subtle. In the same way, you can't ask a human being standing on earth is the earth round, because it's too close. They can't tell.

And you know, it's just something where I understand that players and referees and basketball people and fans say, hey, it's - I've never seen it. Well, I mean, if you want to find out if there's lead in your lake, you don't ask the fisherman. You have an expert from the outside who understands the science of detecting whether there's lead in water to come in and do it. And that's what happened here.

CONAN: And seemed interesting that one of the purposes of this study, just going beyond it, was the National Basketball Association is one of the most diverse, if not the most diverse entertainment industry in this country.


CONAN: The vast majority of players are black. I guess the number of referees is about 38 percent of the referees are black, which is, I guess, roughly double their percentage in the general population and roughly half their percentage in the National Basketball Association.

Mr. SCHWARZ: There's no question. I will state unequivocally that the NBA has been known and has probably earned its reputation as the most progressive major sports company and past time in America. No question about it.

However, that doesn't mean they are immune from the human traits that exist between everybody's - or most people's ears in the year 2007. That - we have found out that this tendency to favor members of your own race, whether you're white or black, has existed in police searches; in the setting of bail amounts; in whether kidneys are transplanted, in whether you can walk off the street and ask to use the bathroom in a store.

It has been shown that however subtle and unnoticed it can be to the people doing it and receiving it, that it exists. We're not that far removed from 1964 no matter how much we like to think so. And given that, this was a story not specifically about NBA referees; it was a story about human beings who happen to referee NBA games and how a trait we are learning that exists in other parts of society apparently exists in basketball as well.

CONAN: Well, unsurprisingly, perhaps, the NBA has taken it as a bit of an attack. Earlier today, NPR's Steve Inskeep spoke with David Stern, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association. The full interview will air tomorrow on MORNING EDITION.

But in speaking with Steve Inskeep, Commissioner Stern made it clear that he does not agree with the study's findings. We're going to listen to a clip, an excerpt from the interview.

Mr. DAVID STERN (NBA Commissioner): We actually have the data of individual officials and individual calls for the last two and a half years, and so knowing this was going to be coming out, we ran the data and came up with something which I think is disappointing to the authors and to the New York Times but says quite starkly that there is no bias amongst NBA officials. And that's the real story here.

CONAN: So he says he's got better numbers than you do, Alan.

Mr. SCHWARZ: May I respond? He's suggesting - and I certainly do not speak on behalf of The New York Times, I would certainly prefer that this be said by my editor, Tom Jolly or Bill Keller, the executive director - but I certainly would take issue with Commissioner Stern's suggestion that we were disappointed. We were not disappointed by the data. We and our experts were far and away unconvinced that the data which they gave us was sufficient, and the analysis which they conducted was proper to believe that their findings were as credible as that which was vetted by our expert panel.

I think that it's the NBA that's most disappointed here and is placing that label on us when it is wholly inaccurate.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in this conversation. 800-989-8255, email is This is Chad, Chad with us from Salisbury, Maryland.

CHAD (Caller): Hello. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

CHAD: I thought it would be common practice - I've been watching NBA for years. You watch Larry Bird play, Larry Bird got a lot of calls. And it kind of went both ways, but not as - not as much as Larry Byrd got compared to what the Jordan got or a Magic Johnson got. And you even see it in college basketball. Look at the charge called that Duke get. You see the same charge go down the other end - it won't be called.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Well, one thing I want to point out that the authors of the paper would point out here if they were here, is that their paper did not find one player who had specifically been discriminated against. They did not find one referee who could be pinpointed as being beyond the level of randomness, had behaved in any way that was anything other than within the bounds of what could be reasonably expected. It was only in the aggregate that you could the pattern, that white and black players drew fouls at different rates when being officiated by different-race refereeing crews. It was only the analysis of 600,000 little pixels that could paint this picture. The players, and the officials, and the team officials, right now who are reacting to this story, and the fans have only seen 22, 26 of these pixels. It's as if they have their faces plastered up against a 50-foot television screen and are saying, hey, I don't see the sunrise, I only see a couple of dots. Well, you're not standing anywhere close to far back enough to be in any position to tell.

CONAN: Interesting, and Chad, thanks very much for the call. Interestingly, the variants was relatively small, about four percent more foul calls by white officials on black players. But the authors of the study said this is statistically significant, it makes a difference which team wins games and which team loses games. And I think part of the reaction was due to a quote that was in your article from Mr. Wolfers. Basically, he said, it suggests that if you spray painted one of your starters white, you'd win a few more games.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Yeah. He did give a good quote there, didn't he?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. SCHWARZ: But the point is, is that - was the bias or the variance - which is a little bit of a less incendiary term that can be used as well - was the variance huge? No, it was not, but it was far beyond what could be expected from randomness. There was a reason why this variance exists - existed. They tested over a dozen plausible other reasons that basketball fans will trot out there. They'll say that hey, there are more black players than white players in the NBA; more minutes are played by black players. What about the fact that more centers are white? And centers tend to draw more fouls than other positions. What about the fact that some players come off the bench specifically to commit fouls? All of these things were taken into account, and no matter what they did, no matter how they looked at it, what angle they looked at it from - the only thing that changed the numbers was if you changed the race of the players and the officials. It's just the way it was.

CONAN: We're speaking with Alan Schwarz, the author of a piece that was published in yesterday's New York Times which has caused a lot of controversy, "Study of NBA Sees Racial Bias in Calling Fouls." If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. Email is

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

Let's get another caller on the line. This is John, John with us from New Plymouth in Ohio.

JOHN (Caller): Hi.


JOHN: Hey. I have to admit right off the bat that I have not seen the study. Most of what I've heard has come from talk radio, sports radio, just yesterday. And it sounds like maybe some of the things I initially heard maybe aren't panning out. I heard a much smaller percentage. I heard it was like below one percent, and you guys are claiming - what is it - like, four percent, is that right.

CONAN: Neither one of us is claiming anything. It's the two academics who did this study.

JOHN: Well, you know what I'm saying. I mean, that's what you're telling me. I haven't seen the report. But I guess - two things. One - and your guest kind of addressed this - about the strategies of the game, how fouls are not just, you know, necessarily referees picking on players, but it's actually a tactic in the game that coaches will send players out to foul players. You're saying that's been factored into the equation. But one thing, you know - and this is just, you know - is it possible that as a group, that - is it possible that black players might be more inclined with a higher athletic, you know, game in general? I know it might sound racist, but, you know, it's a more aggressive style whereas a lot of white players are more, you know, shooters as opposed to, you know, driving…

Mr. SCHWARZ: Let me chime in, because - that is an extraordinarily intelligent question, and one that has been asked not nearly often enough, and I'm glad you brought it up. Yes. Some players and perhaps African-American players have a different style of play in aggregate than white players. That's quite possible. They tested for that.

The whole point of the study was looking at what happens to the same player. What happens when Joe Smith - actually, there is a Joe Smith; I don't mean to be picking on him - what happens when Joe Schmoe, okay, is - when that player who presumably has the same style of play regardless of refereeing crew - I think we have to assume that for the moment, okay? We can test that later, but for now, we're not going to go with it. That same player drew different numbers of fouls whether the crew was all white or all black or two to one in either direction. It was the same player. They tested for that. I think one of the most dispiriting things that I've witnessed - and this caller is not exhibiting it - so caller, I don't want you to think that I'm saying this about you - is people have been so unbelievably dismissive.

Don't you think that these guys know what they're doing? Can't you at least give them the benefit of the doubt to listen to their explanations for what they've done? I can tell you right now that 60 to 70 percent of the response that I've gotten has been from people saying, hey, idiot, there are more black players in the NBA. Duh. Well, as an educator at heart, it's very difficult for me to sit here and witnessing my students riot. It's really awful.

CONAN: One of the things I found interesting was a quote you had in your piece from Ian Ayres of the Yale Law School, author of "Pervasive Prejudice," an expert in testing for how subtle racial bias, also known as implicit association of peers in interactions. And he said, I would be more surprised if he didn't exist - he said about the implicit association of bias in the NBA. There's a growing consensus that a large proportion of racialized decisions is not driven by any conscious race discrimination but that it's often just driven by unconscious or subconscious attitudes. When you force people to make snap decisions, they often can't keep themselves from subconsciously treating blacks different than whites, men different from women.

JOHN: (Unintelligible) is the NBA - is the pressure going to ratchet up on them to release their own internal study, because I'd love to see, you know, what they've really got and compare these, you know, these two studies and find out what's - what the difference is.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Well, I certainly do not speak on behalf of the NBA. What they sent us, which - as far as I know, we do not have permission to release in raw form although if they're listening, they're certainly more than welcome to tell me one way or the other, they have my number - basically, it was not convincing to three people, experts, drop-dead experts…

JOHN: (Unintelligible) study.

Mr. SCHWARZ: …who know - so the same people who judged the Wolfers and Price study, judged the NBA study, and they said - and unfortunately, yesterday, it got to the point where they needed to be far more specific. They said that the NBA study was not done properly, it did not look at things the way you have to in order to truly test for this, and therefore it really didn't hold any water. It's a shame. We wish that we could have assessed - we could have gotten a more - well, I don't want to express any disappointment. It's just - just the NBA didn't come close to clearing the bar it needed to clear it for us to believe their findings. I know they believe their findings.

JOHN: They're going to have to.

Mr. SCHWARZ: But they have to convince outsiders to believe their findings, and I invite them - certainly, as we did, privately, two and three weeks ago, I invite them to let people who know what - really know what they're doing. Yup.

CONAN: We need to go.

JOHN: Bye.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Okay.

CONAN: All right. John, thanks very much for the call. And let me remind you, there'll be an interview with NBA commissioner David Stern on NPR's MORNING EDITION with Steve Inskeep tomorrow morning. Alan, thanks very much for your time. We know you're extremely busy.

Mr. SCHWARZ: My pleasure, Neal. Anytime.

CONAN: Alan Schwarz, staff writer for the New York Times, author of the book "Once Upon a Game: Baseball's Greatest Memories." He joined us today from the Argos studio in New York City.

Ira Flatow will be here tomorrow with SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll see you again on Monday. I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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