Racial bias and NBA referees -- Part 1
A new study says that NBA referees are racially biased.
The study came to light Wednesday in an article by Alan Schwarz on the front page of the New York Times. To his credit, Schwarz did a bit of investigating before running the article -- he had obtained an advance copy of the study, and he sent it to three prominent economists (Ian Ayres, David Berri, and Larry Katz), who pronounced it valid.
Here's the study, courtesy of the NYT website. It's called "Racial Discrimination Among NBA Referees," by Joseph Price and Justin Wolfers.
Price and Wolfers looked at every regular season NBA game from 1991-92 to 2003-04. First, they noted that white players took more fouls than black players (after normalizing to 48 minutes on the court):
4.330 fouls/game – black players
4.970 fouls/game – white players
The authors are quick to point out that this statistic, by itself, is not evidence of discrimination; the two groups are probably just different. "The difference in foul rates," they write, "largely reflect the fact that white players tend to be taller, heavier, and more likely to play center than black players."
(By the way, the Times article gets this wrong; in its second paragraph, it says "white referees called fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players." That isn't true – both white and black referees called significantly more fouls against white players.)
But even if white players take more fouls than black players for non-racial reasons, you can still check for referee bias. There are three referees per game, and you can measure the difference in black/white fouls with more black referees, and compare it to the same stats with fewer black referees. The results:
0 white refs: whites take 0.827 more fouls than blacks
1 white refs: whites take 0.675 more fouls than blacks
2 white refs: whites take 0.654 more fouls than blacks
3 white refs: whites take 0.574 more fouls than blacks
Smoothing out these numbers, the authors summarize:
Each additional white ref = 0.061 fewer fouls to whites relative to blacks
Now, if you're a skeptic like me, the first thing you usually do, after a result like this, is to think of other reasons that the effect shows up. For instance, in baseball, if someone found that player X hits better on weekends than weekdays, you'd say, "Aha! That's because weekday games are played during the day, and weekend games at night. So what's really being measured is day/night effects, not weekend/weekday effects!" And you'd probably be right.
Is there a similar argument that can be made in this study? Nope. The equivalent to weekend/weekday in this study is white refs/black refs. So to make the day/night argument, you have to find something that correlates with the race of the referees. But you probably won't – because the NBA assigns the referees almost completely at random!
So it doesn't matter what internal correlations there are within the rest of the data. Maybe games in certain arenas are more aggressive, and should have more fouls. It doesn't matter, because black and white referees are equally likely to be assigned to those games. Maybe different players have different styles. It doesn't matter, because black and white referees are equally likely to be assigned to those players. And so on, for anything you can think of.
Now, it *is* possible that despite the referees being assigned randomly, whites were assigned to more high-foul games just by chance. But that's what the significance tests are for, and it turns out the probability of that is very small. And, just to make sure, the authors ran a couple of other tests, and couldn't find any significant differences between the white-referee games and the black-referee games.
And, just to make completely sure, the authors ran a bunch of regressions that corrected for all kinds of factors: player characteristics, home/road, stadium, and so on. They even ran one mega-huge test, where they used dummy variables for every different player, and for every different referee! And for all those tests, the measured effect of the race of the referee was pretty much the same. And that's as expected, because, no matter how many factors you correct for, the referees were assigned randomly to those factors anyway. The only possibility is that some weird random things happened, like white referees were assigned to all the games with the basketball equivalent of Donald Brashear – but the authors' extra tests show that didn't happen.
So the differences are real. The next question is, what do they mean? And do they prove racial bias against blacks? I'm thinking about some of this stuff, and I'll probably discuss some of it in another post, which is why this is "part 1".
For now, I'll list a few more of the findings from the study:
1. The effect is mostly limited to the frequency with which referees call fouls on whites:
Each additional white ref = 0.007 fewer fouls to blacks
Each additional white ref = 0.068 fewer fouls to whites
Blacks are called pretty consistently regardless of the race of the referee. This is kind of interesting, but I'm not sure it necessarily means anything (more next post).
2. There is a similar race effect based on the victim of the foul, not just the perpetrator. It's roughly equal in size. This means that in some ways, the effect is double what it appears to be from the above results.
Since box scores don't identify the victim, his race had to be approximated by the "average race" of the team. This increases the variance of the estimates, but they were still all statistically significant.
3. If I understand the regression coefficients properly, the real-life effect is this: Going from the extreme case of "all black players and all white referees" to "all white players and all white referees" would save a team about 2 extra foul calls a game (one less as perp and one more as victim). It also leads to a 5 point difference. (This assumes that the new white players are exactly as likely to commit the same foul-related plays as the black players. In real life, white players foul more.)
However, this 5 points is an unrealistic measure of the effect. In real life, there are 67% white referees, and five players on the court. A more realistic example: if you add replace one black player with white player, you improve by 67% of 1/5 of 5 points, which is 2/3 of a point. That's still pretty significant, but doesn't really affect strategy much at all.
And keep in mind, too, that if two teams have an equal percentage of minutes played by whites, they'll cancel out and neither team has the advantage.Also, note that if referee bias gives whites fewer fouls, that will show up in their statistics (fewer turnovers, for instance, since an offensive foul counts as a turnover). So the "Moneyball" effect is not 100% of the race effect – some of the advantage should be priced into white players' salaries already, at least that's true for the part of the advantage that shows up in stats. For the other part – for instance, if white players are more likely to draw opposition fouls, but teams don’t keep track of that -- maybe there's a slight opportunity to exploit there.
Overall, I think the race effect doesn't really affect the outcome of the games very much. But, obviously, the study raises more important issues than just basketball strategy.
There's lots and lots of discussion of this study at other blogs: for instance, Freakonomics, The Sports Economist, The Wages of Wins, and Sabernomics. I'm linking to only the most recent posting from each blog, but some of them have multiples.