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Thursday, May 3, 2007
About This Referee Bias Thing

Have you read Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink"? I'm guessing that anyone who has read that book is not upset by the news that there is evidence of racial bias among NBA referees.

I don't think anyone is accusing NBA referees of harboring racist views as you and I would typically describe them; You know, like the stereotypical, pro-active, "keep blacks down" kind of views that still sadly have dogged some backward white Americans.

Consider the views of the study's lead author, as reported by Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe:

What Wolfers and Price are attempting to do is demonstrate that even in an enterprise as racially harmonious as the NBA, people will act with what they label as an "implicit bias" that is so ingrained they truly can't help themselves. Says Wolfers, "The referees are good people, like you and me, who are doing their darnedest not to be biased, but wind up being so, anyway."

Along those lines, I present the reality that no player, coach, or executive has ever, that I have seen, complained about referees exhibiting racial bias. This is just one problem the NBA does not have. People aren't upset about it. Even now, presented with this study, and an opportunity to tee off on the old white guys who officiate their every move, players are defending referees as not racist.

I can't shake the feeling that if you were a real racist, you'd have enemies at the ready to sell you out at this exact instant. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe players are too scared to pipe up.

The most relevant part of the "Blink" is not online, but an excerpt with a similar vibe is. Gladwell presents evidence that an insanely high proportion of CEOs are tall:

Is this a deliberate prejudice? Of course not. No one ever says, dismissively, of a potential CEO candidate that 'he's too short.' This is quite clearly the kind of unconscious prejudice that the IAT picks up. Most of us, in ways that we are not entirely aware of, automatically associate leadership ability with imposing physical stature. We have a sense, in our minds, of what a leader is supposed to look like, and that stereotype is so powerful that when someone fits it, we simply become blind to other considerations. And this isn't confined to the corporate suite. Not long ago, researchers went back and analyzed the data from four large research studies, that had followed thousands of people from birth to adulthood, and calculated that when corrected for variables like age and gender and weight, an inch of height is worth $789 a year in salary. That means that a person who is six feet tall, but who is otherwise identical to someone who is five foot five, will make on average $5,525 more per year. As Timothy Judge, one of the authors of the study, points out: "If you take this over the course of a 30-year career and compound it, we're talking about a tall person enjoying literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of earnings advantage." Have you ever wondered why so many mediocrities find their way into positions of authority in companies and organizations? It's because when it comes to even the most important positions, we think that our selection decisions are a good deal more rational than they actually are. We see a tall person, and we swoon.

So, if you get the connection here, it's that we might not think we love tall people -- but in our actions it's clear we favor them in some ways. The same kind of thing could be going on with referees and race. Referees can be good and well-meaning, and still not react exactly the same way to one race as another.

Maybe even you do that.

Did you see that Malcolm Gladwell tossed in the term IAT? That's an Implicit Association Test. I just took one, and you should too. I would explain how it works, but I don't want to screw up the results. But suffice it to say, a lot of people find that, even though they have no ill feelings towards whites or blacks, their mind ends up having a little subconsicous trouble associating one group or another with happy things. It's not what I'd consider racism. It's not malice. It is what it is. And people who research this stuff find it's pretty much everywhere, in everything. (Click around this list of other articles related to this kind of research: in politics, in women's careers, customer service, and more.) It's no shocker that it might be in the NBA a little too.

The study has yet to be peer-reviewed, and for all I know it has flaws. But I am certain of this: everyone who is having that knee-jerk "THIS IS A PILE OF CRAP" reaction? Whoa. Slow down. Take yourself an aspirin, and perhaps an IAT. This is more subtle than what you think you are reacting to, and you owe it to yourself to at least understand what the accusation is here.

And, to be sure, there may be flaws with the study, too. I hope the peer review is rigorous, and that once it is complete we all have the attention span to review this again.

For instance, one of the things the authors might discuss is their finding that black players are called for more fouls than white players. The blog Basketball Blunders has an explanation:

In general, players like Bruce Bowen, Ron Artest, and Raja Bell are required to defend some of the best scorers in the league, often requiring more physicality. Similarly, players like Marcus Camby, Ben Wallace, and Tim Duncan are charged with playing tough post defense and help defense by blocking shots. These players are often called for more fouls than their more offensively-minded counterparts. The vast majority of the league's top defenders are black players. Looking at the recently released all-defensive teams, 9 of the 10 players are black. Going deeper into the list, only 4 of the 45 players who received all-defensive votes were white. This is not one of the variables for which the study makes allowances.

One thing I'm sure the authors would point out in response is that another of the study's key findings is a varation in trends between how different referee crews call the game. The whiter the crew, the more the bias in calling fouls on black players. That trend is not explained even one little tiny bit by the Euro non-defender explanation. Also, I'd wager centers foul at least as much as any other position, if not more. That position, I have read, is disproportionately white.

So, yes, there is more discussion to come, certainly. But let's at least understand that the accusation is that NBA referees behave more or less like everyone else -- with some subconscious feelings at play -- not like old-school racists.

And one last point: If the NBA wants to prove this study inaccurate, all they have to do is release the data their competing research was based on. If they're worried about privacy, they should just change all the referee names to "white referee" and "black referee." This is too important to ignore with a simple "don't worry, we checked it all out and it's fine." Let's see the evidence.