Study: Foul calls are often black and white

NBA referees

KAI RYSSDAL: The National Basketball Association playoffs continue this evening. Denver's at San Antonio. The Lakers go to Phoenix. And chances are that at any point in either one of those games, the majority of the players will be black and the referees will be white.

The New York Times reports today that simple fact could determine the final score.A new academic study in the works has found that when a player's black and the ref is white, that ref is more likely to call a foul. There's a similar racial bias the other way, too, when a ref's black and a player's white — although the contrast is not quite as stark.

Allan Schwarz wrote the story.

ALLAN SCHWARZ: What we tried to make the point of was to say that this is something that happens in many areas of society. It happens in determination of whether people are going to be given a home loan for a bank. It happens whether a taxi driver will stop for a certain type of racial patron at midnight in the inner city. We know that this takes place in other areas of society. It has been found to exist as well on the basketball court of the National Basketball Association. The experts that we consulted told us, almost invariably, that they would have been surprised if it didn't exist.

RYSSDAL: The thing that struck me when I was reading it — and I thought about your home loan example and, you know, business meetings by a black executive or an Asian-American woman — this is, in the crucible of an NBA game, it's a snap indicator of bias.

SCHWARZ: Well yeah. I mean, the way that sociologists and econometricists and the meetings of those two have come to determine this is through tests and other ways of measuring how people collectively make decisions in sort of high-profile, discernible and snap-second judgment-type of environments. What they have found is that otherwise liberal and well-meaning and fair people do tend, in the aggregate, to show an own-race bias. Whites favor whites and blacks favor blacks. It is not that striking, OK, because it's so subtle that you would never really know if that was the issue, if you were going through it yourself. But if you pan far back enough and get enough data, and control for enough things — which is what the economists know how to do — you are able to identify better and isolate what the reasons for this collective behavior may be, so that the individual people involved might consider it.

RYSSDAL: Before I let you go, Allan, what about the men arguably most affected by this, at least in this instance? You know, if you narrow it down from the broader workplace as we were talking about to these 10 guys running around on the court, what do they have to say?

SCHWARZ: Well, players . . . it is such a hot-button topic, of course. The players not only are a little reluctant to discuss it publicly, but also they hadn't seen the paper. A few of them, however, were kind enough to share their immediate thoughts, and they really dismissed the possibility of this taking place. Because they do see the NBA courts as being a place which is very fair. Now, we have to take that at face-value, but we also I think need to remember this type of bias . . . the whole point behind it is it is not detectable by the person who experiences it. Or certainly not detectable in any accurate manner. It is a phenomenon that can only be diagnosed through a very large amount of interactions and data. And no individual player could possibly amass that type of experience.

RYSSDAL: Allan Schwarz at The New York Times with a story this morning on racial bias in foul calls in the National Basketball Association. Allan, thanks a lot.

SCHWARZ: Well, thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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