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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Race & The NBA

I've already discussed the study by two economists that empirically prove that there is a racial bias in foul calls by white and black referees respectively. The NBA of course denounced this and offered up an apparently ridiculous - from an academic point of view - study (check the input box by Tom Jolly the NY Times sports editor) to counter this. It is hard if not impossible to simply discount the findings of Wolfers and Price considering they analyzed 13 seasons, adjusted their results to role player, all stars and the such, all in all a very sound piece of work as it seems (I haven't obviously read it, but that's how most everyone not directly associated with the NBA portrays it).

Yet, John Hollinger discards it on the notion that playing a black player when a white officiating crew presides for 48 minutes instead of a white one, results in a foul call increase of only a negligible increase of 2.5 to 4.5%. Assuming that a team plays with an all black line-up this of course would imply a rise in foul calls against that team of 12.5 to 22.5%, which makes the word negligible sound doubtful already. Also, even if one considers the results of the study to be so low as to not hold any importance for the outcome of games - which I doubt - the basic premise that - subconscious - racism on the part of the referees is persistent. Hollinger excuses that by explaining that 'refs are human too, after all, and when they step on the court they unwittingly bring their life experiences and values with them.' The logical conclusion here being that life experiences and values of white referees necessarily have a racist edge to them, because otherwise how would the statistical correlation be explained? Finally, even if the statistical numbers are low that of course changes a players' behaviour anyway. Someone with two fouls will play defense differently or may not even be on the court anymore than someone who only has one in the first or second quarter of a game.

A friend of mine brings a more valid argument to the table which argues that white players less so than black players are considered defensive specialists resulting in black players such as Marion, Camby or Bowen being called for fouls more often than white shooters such as Kapono, Korver or Stojakovic. On the first and second all-defensive team for the 2006/2007 season there is not one white player he offers as further proof of this theory. While I agree with the general premise of this argument I wonder whether it could not be turned around. From my own experience of being a rather bad defender - and a slightly better offensive player - I would argue that a guy such as Kyle Korver trying to defend against the opposing team's small forward (say LeBron James) is going to rack up more fouls than Bruce Bowen doing the same thing. Obviously both of these arguments do not have any statistical back-up, just some food for thought.

Lastly in my big race and the NBA entry (hope I have not chased away the female half of my 4 daily readers with this), Richard Lapchick explains on ESPN that the NBA's big picture actually is really pretty when compared to the other major leagues in the USA. According to a study done by him (and Horacio Ruiz and Marina Bustamante) 75% of NBA players are black, 36% of all referees are either black or latino, 40% of the head coaches, 15% of team vice-presidents are black, 34% of professionals in the league office were minorities and the NBA also has the only black CEOs (5) and presidents (2) in professional sports. Also of course Robert Johnson is the only black owner of a franchise in American professional sports. While all this implies that the NBA is a front-runner in regard to integration when compared to the NFL or MLB, I have to differ with the view that it shows a pretty picture. Take a simple look at the amount of players and compare it with the rest of the numbers, especially the number of head coaches (and presidents too I believe) since most of these used to be players themselves. To me, this makes clear that basketball is (and will continue to be) a sports played by blacks (I wonder how high the percentage of of black players would be if you only included Americans) and controlled by whites (I am not even claiming that this is due to inherent racism or anything like that, probably is more related to the economic realities of racial life in the USA, am just stating a fact that I feel Lapchick is misrepresenting).

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