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Who said the refs are blind?

Normally I wouldn't stray into NBA waters within this forum, but there's been quite a controversy this week regarding a study that alleges a trend where white referees call fouls at a greater rate on black players than on white players. The clamoring across sports radio has been loud and (predictably) ill-informed, and the fact that the NBA came out with their own study refuting the claims only serves to muddy the waters further. I wanted to point out a couple of points here that I heard several times, in an effort to stem the tide of statistical ignorance.




1. Yesterday on Dan Patrick's ESPN show Charles Barkley chimed in with the stunning insight that there are more black players than white in the NBA, so of course there will be more fouls called on them. This argument in particular I heard repeated on two different local sports radio talk shows as well, so it's worth stating - the researchers looked at the rate at which fouls were called in terms of minutes played, so the overall level of different players has been corrected for. According to the Times article linked to above, they also tried to correct for the position of the player, veteran/All Star status, home/road tendencies, etc.

2. Most commentators aren't getting that the level of incremental fouls given is incredibly small. I really don't think it's worth getting worked up about. From the study:

"Across all of these specifications, we find that black players
receive around 0.12- 0.21 more fouls per 48 minutes played (relative to
white players) when the number of white referees officiating a game
increases from zero to three (an increase of 2½-4½%)."

So, if you've got a team with five black players against five white players for the entire 48 minutes of a game, and an all-white officiating crew, these findings would indicate that the black team would expect 1 incremental foul call per game than if they had all-black officials. I'm sorry, but that's a pretty darn small effect, and if anything, seems to be a vindication of the NBA's diverse culture working together.

After all, the real lesson here is that subtle preferences can underlie what seem to objective decisions made every day, and that applies not just to the NBA, but to just about every facet of modern life. From the final paragraph of the study:

"Thus, while the external validity of these results remains an
open question, they are at least suggestive that implicit biases may play an
important role in shaping our evaluation of others, particularly in split-second
high-pressure decisions. That is, while these results may be of interest to
those intrigued by the sporting context, we emphasize them instead as
potentially suggestive of similar forces operating in a range of other contexts
involving rapid subjective assessments."

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