The NBA, referees, Malcolm Gladwell, and race

Henry Abbott at Truehoop reexamines an issue that emerged a few years ago with a paper written by several economists: do NBA officials exhibit implicit race bias when calling fouls? Here is Abbott’s take on the findings and implications of the original study:

Basically, the more black referees on the court, the better the calls for black players. And the reverse is true for white players. The entire combined effect is fairly limited, around 4 percent, but the pattern is certainly there.

All of this means not all that much about NBA referees, other than that they’re human. The research was about human decision making in the workplace, and the referees were just a handy group to study.

And nothing about these findings do much to undermine the NBA’s position as one of the most successfully race-blind organizations on the planet.

Abbott writes that the NBA essentially lost the scientific battle as experts pored over the economists’ paper as well as the NBA’s study and found the NBA’s study to be lacking. (It is also interesting to note that the economists made all of their data available online, making it open for scrutiny from others.)

Malcolm Gladwell enters the picture because of his book Blink where he looks at how people make quick decisions. In instances where race matters, such as calling fouls or making a decision about whether a suspect is about to pull a gun, a person making a decision nearly instantaneously makes judgments based on knowledge or associations they make about different races. Abbott sums up this research on race and judgments (read more about it at the Project Implicit website):

The lesson Gladwell, Winfrey, Harvard researchers and others took from this was about environment: We may have reached a point where a lot of explicit racism (the kinds of things we’d associate with hate speech, the klan, segregation and the like) is largely behind us. But our brains are still bombarded with images of “bad” black people and “good” white ones, which affects our quick reactions to white and black faces.

More broadly, this lines up with sociological thinkers who have suggested that in recent decades, racism and discrimination has become less overt and more covert. But just because racism appears less present doesn’t mean that the problem has been solved or that we have entered into a color-blind world. Gladwell and others suggest that it is even built into our snap judgments.

As Abbott suggests, how the NBA responds to this remains to be seen. The initial response of strongly denying the economists’ research appears no longer tenable. For a league that aspires to become global (involving even more ethnicities and races) and also wants to gain a larger audience in America (fighting football and baseball as the big sports), recognizing that this issue exists and also demonstrating a willingness to work at reducing the effect may matter quite a bit.