Whistle Blowers

I was a bit shocked initially, but then reality set in. Sports, statistics, and economics, go hand in hand nowadays, and any tangible facet of the game can be analyzed, controversial or not. Alan Schwarz’ story Wednesday morning that an academic study shows racial bias in foul calls in the NBA proves that.

Do I think race sways the judgment of NBA refs? No way. Alright, maybe once in awhile since everyone is human, but I do not think refs see the court in black and white. However, do not dismiss the findings. Numbers do not lie, even if the conclusion is coincidental.

The story obviously drew a lot of media traction this week. As expected, radio and television personalities ridiculed the study as holding no weight, a waste of academic time and money. One ESPN Radio host summed it up best by calling the researchers, a graduate student from Cornell and associate professor from Wharton, “geeks” who “probably never picked up a ball in their lives”. Other media geniuses mocked the authors for spending thirteen years on such a meaningless topic.

First off, while there are reasons to attack the study and poke holes in it, the arguments above do more to show the media as uneducated jocks that cannot analyze a report and make cogent arguments. The study did not consume thirteen years of research time – it analyzed data from thirteen seasons. Get the facts straight before calling yourselves journalists. And since when is someone required to be an athlete to analyze statistics. One look through most press boxes shows an athletic build is not required for journalists.

Now the study has some fatal flaws. The data does not show exactly which referee called which fouls, it only knows the composition of the officiating crew, i.e. one African-American and two Caucasian, three African-American, etc. This shows what type of officiating crews call fouls on whites vs. blacks, but not exactly which ref. In addition, they classified players and refs as black or white by pictures. They did not account for players who are racially mixed, or players that could be tough to visually classify.

The article mentions that some outside factors, such as centers fouling more and home court advantage, but without seeing the report it is impossible to see if all possible factors are considered. How were intentional fouls at the end of the game treated? Do you account for the hack-a-Shaq type situations? Is a player’s past behavior considered? I think refs are more prone to call fouls on players that have argued with them in the past, whether black or white, or possibly on a team with a hotheaded coach known for technical fouls. Maybe those stats warrant similar studies.

I am reserving judgment until the study is formally released and the public reviews it. For that reason, the uneducated portion of the media should reserve judgment for now and not be so quick to dismiss anything sports-related that comes from academia. The numbers do not lie, but numbers cannot always substantiate conclusions on behavioral conclusions.

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