PROVO — It's unintentional, but NBA referees call fewer fouls on players of their own race, according to a recently published paper co-authored by a BYU professor.
Yet the study, which came out last week in Quarterly Journal of Economics, has ramifications beyond the basketball court, says Joe Price, a BYU economics professor who co-authored the study as a Ph.D. student at Cornell along with assistant professor Justin Wolfers at the University of Pennsylvania.
"As society we've made huge strides in removing forms of explicit discrimination, but we might still have the lingering effects of implicit discrimination," Price said. "I might not think of myself as explicitly racist, but I still might be influenced by particular stereotypes that I'm not even aware of."
Such was the case in their study, where they reviewed foul calls across 13 NBA seasons, from 1991-1992 to 2003-2004, and studied more than 25,000 million player-game observations.
After accounting for things like position, all-star status, points, blocks, steals, minutes played, etc., Price and Wolfers looked at fouls per player compared to the racial makeup of the referees.
If the three-member referee crew was mostly white, white players received 4 percent fewer fouls than did black players. And if the referees were mostly black, black players received 4 percent fewer fouls. Even stronger bias occurred when the referees were all one race, Price said.
Results were striking enough that for a player experiencing a positive bias, their points would increase by 2.5 percent, and if someone had bet on a team that was more racially similar to the referees, it would have been a "very profitable betting strategy," Price said.
Yet, this bias is not so obvious that players, coaches or referees notice it, Price said. It only appears when studying thousands of calls, leading the scholars to believe it's unintentional.
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan has had his fair share of run-ins with NBA referees over his 23 seasons as Utah's bench boss. But Sloan came to the officials' defense when informed of the study.
Researchers, he believes, are "grasping at straws" because he doesn't see this as a problem in the league.
"Officials ... it doesn't make any difference who they are, it's a tough job," Sloan said. "And we're kind of tough with them at times, but the most important thing (is) they're trying to do their job the best way they can.
"I don't know how you could get hung up on something like that," he added. "I don't even know why we're commenting on it, to be honest about it."
Jazz guard Raja Bell, who's in his 11th NBA season, did not want to comment directly on the study. The U.S. Virgins Island native had not heard of the research or its findings before being asked about it Friday.
"I'm so busy in trying to do my job in being upset with the refs in general, that I don't even think about that kind of stuff," Bell said. "I'm more interested in how those guys came up with that study and wanting to put that study together than anything. That's interesting."
The paper initially got attention when it was completed in 2007. It was published only last week because it finally completed the gauntlet of peer reviews.
Back in 2007, the NBA responded to the study with their own follow-up study, which denied any evidence of bias.
"That's completely the wrong approach," Price said. "(They should say) 'We didn't realize this is happening, let's look into this.'"
In fact, after the NBA's independent report came out, Price said they evaluated it and wrote a response, currently under review, about how the NBA's study can be used to support their original findings.7 comments on this story
While sporting events offer a perfect "lab" in which to study split-second decisions in front of thousands of people, Price said their findings have application for everyone, from helping with decisions like who to hire, to the racial make-up of police forces, to which student to call on during a lecture.
Price believes it's important for individuals to step back and ask themselves if they're acting on lurking stereotypes, as awareness of implicit biases is the first step to addressing them.
"We all make lots of decisions," Price said, "and if those are slightly influenced by some stereotype, the aggregation of those (decisions), could have a big influence."