Big question about officials study: What if it's right?

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PostPosted: Sat May 05, 2007 10:07 am
Friday, May 4, 2007
Big question about officials study: What if it's right?
By Lester Munson
Special to ESPN.com

Many questions are being asked -- some by the league itself -- about the massive study that found racial bias in foul calls in the NBA:

• How can the authors -- a highly-regarded Wharton School economist and a grad student -- claim bias when their data didn't include the race of the referee who made the call or the race of the player who was fouled?

• How important can the study be if the supposed bias accounts for only one-fifth of one foul per 48 minutes played? That's a difference of only about eight fouls per season for a player who plays 25 minutes per game.

• What about "no-calls"? Shouldn't the study have included incidents such as a white player flattening a black player after a three-point attempt in front of a white ref, sending the home crowd into apoplexy when no whistle is blown?

Those are good questions. But there's one question, perhaps the most important question, that no one seems to want to ask:

What if these economists are right?

The NBA and its referees certainly aren't asking it. They're in denial mode. They've been heaping scorn upon the study from the moment The New York Times first reported on it on Wednesday. They tout a second, considerably smaller study done by a statistical contractor the league hired and paid that (surprise, surprise) concludes there is no bias and all is well.

It's easy to understand why the NBA would fight back fiercely against a charge of bias. When more than 80 percent of the players in the league are black, the explosive issue of race is always lurking just below the surface of concerns about dress codes or hairstyles or choice of music.

But some things about the study cannot be ignored.

It is a massive piece of work that incorporates more than 600,000 foul calls over a 14-year span of regular-season games. Justin Wolfers and his co-author, Joseph Price, a graduate student at Cornell, worked and reworked their data, using the most sophisticated analytical techniques available. (Price had the idea; Wolfers had the standing, the experience and the computer power.)

By the time the Times made it public, the study had been tested and questioned by high-wattage intellects across the nation. At the University of Chicago, the home of an economics department that has won more Nobel Prizes than any other, Wolfers successfully defended his work in a seminar packed with brilliant academics. Wolfers deftly fielded questions from the likes of Richard Epstein and Cass Sunstein, two professors of law and economics whose own studies are recognized in universities and governments throughout the world.

According to Allen Sanderson, a sports economist at the University of Chicago, Wolfers himself is "one of the bright lights in the field of economics."

Still, Howard Pearl, an attorney and former federal prosecutor who has represented numerous NBA officials and led their union for many years, isn't buying it.

"It is a triumph of statistics over reality," Pearl says. "A [statistical] correlation does not prove causation. Of all the factors that can cause a referee to call a foul, race is a zero factor."

But Wolfers doesn't accuse the league's officials of redneck, malicious racism. He suggests that a more subtle, unconscious bias emerges when a referee must make an instant decision in a high-pressure atmosphere. The academic term is "taste-based discrimination," which is a notion that has been documented in the behavior of police officers, judges and others who must make decisions in racially diverse circumstances.

Wolfers is incredulous at the response to his study.

"There is no way the NBA study can be more in-depth than our study," he says. "We looked at 14 seasons, and I have now added the last three seasons as well."

In the Times article on Wednesday, three other economics professors agreed with Wolfers that his study has more credibility than the NBA's analysis.

"The NBA has given its study to three people, and all three people have agreed that it is incomprehensible," Wolfers says.

He concedes that his data told him only the racial makeup of the three-official crew at each game and not the race of the individual ref making each call. Wolfers says he asked the NBA for its data on each foul call and was rebuffed.

"I would be happy to add it to our study, but they will not share it with us," he says.

In answer to criticism that he didn't know the race of the ref making each foul call, Wolfers reworked his database, looking only at all-white crews and all-black crews.

"It's a smaller sample, but the outcome is the same," he says. "There is the same level of discrimination in the calls. The NBA has equated evidence of absence [of the race of the official] with an absence of evidence. The evidence is there, and it is clear."

Wolfers might be right. Unlike the NBA, he has no stake in the study's ramifications. His work will be published and recognized on the strength of its science and its technique, rather than its outcome. By contrast, the NBA can be viewed as trying to protect its product when it hires its own contractor to make a study of statistics.

So what should the NBA do in the wake of Wolfers' study?

• It should consider eliminating single-race officiating crews. The league already has elaborate schemes for rotation of officials. It would be relatively easy to include an affirmative action rule that requires diversity within each crew.

• It should give Wolfers the NBA's data on the race of each official making each call. That data is available, and Wolfers is willing to analyze it. "I told them I would come into their office, do the work with them watching, and give them the results under a confidentiality agreement," Wolfers says. "They were not interested."

• It should allow Wolfers to expand his study to include no-calls, three-second violations, traveling violations and technical fouls, and make a comprehensive determination about the fairness and integrity of officials' decisions.

Lester Munson is a Chicago journalist and lawyer who has been reporting on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry for 18 years.
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PostPosted: Sat May 05, 2007 10:23 am
IF it's right is one thing... but I stopped listening when I found out that the study couldn't tell me WHICH ref's made WHICH calls; they simply took the numbers from box scores.

I'm with Mike Wilbon on this; if you're going to do a study, go back and watch the tape, and then tell me what you've found... but if you can't tell me WHICH ref's made WHICH calls on WHICH types of players in this study you've conducted, then you've got nothing.
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PostPosted: Sat May 05, 2007 12:43 pm
32 wrote:IF it's right is one thing... but I stopped listening when I found out that the study couldn't tell me WHICH ref's made WHICH calls; they simply took the numbers from box scores.

I'm with Mike Wilbon on this; if you're going to do a study, go back and watch the tape, and then tell me what you've found... but if you can't tell me WHICH ref's made WHICH calls on WHICH types of players in this study you've conducted, then you've got nothing.

I guess the fact that the NBA won't give out that information and the study has held up to numerous peer review challenges says something. What I found most interesting is that when the researchers controlled out by using only all black or all white referr crews, the results and disparities are the same. Speaking as someone who has done research at a fairly high level, I know that the level of rigor, control and proof is higher and more thorough in this study, and the level of evidence requited in large scale academic studies is greater than most of us can imagine. There are several excellent books on unconscious bias which would put this in better context for those who are interested. Blink, freakanomics, stumbling on happiness and social intelligence. Check'em out. More to the point the NBA did a small in-house study whose results have been universally challenged and won't share the data on which it bases its results with anyone. I say, show your data if you are going to attack a study that shows its sources. Otherwise, the NBA "study" has the value of the Utah "cold fusion" fraud. What I would really like to see is a study on technicals. My gut is that we will see an even greater disparity in that one, based on Joey Crawford, Bennett Salvatore, Steve Javie, etc...
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PostPosted: Sat May 05, 2007 12:45 pm
32 wrote:IF it's right is one thing... but I stopped listening when I found out that the study couldn't tell me WHICH ref's made WHICH calls; they simply took the numbers from box scores.

I'm with Mike Wilbon on this; if you're going to do a study, go back and watch the tape, and then tell me what you've found... but if you can't tell me WHICH ref's made WHICH calls on WHICH types of players in this study you've conducted, then you've got nothing.


Well, the sample was big enough to make it meaningful, but so far it's only stats. And it will probably end that way.

About specific refs... that wasn't the aim of the study. It involves all the refs of the league (some of them may even be retired) and not specific refs. And I like it that way, as they are not biased "on purpose". It would be a bad idea to make their names available to the public.
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PostPosted: Sat May 05, 2007 12:47 pm
One last thing on this. If nothing else, if this study prompts the NBA to raise the level of its wretched officiating, that will be all to the good. Start with hiring just retired players who actually have the stamina, speed and eyesight to keep up with the game.
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PostPosted: Sat May 05, 2007 12:51 pm
Oh, don't get me wrong. You'll get zero referee support from me (and that's speaking as a former basketball referee, myself). But I just didn't think the study seemed credible enough, after finding out that they used box scores instead of actual game footage.

If the points that colt brings up are all, in fact, true, than the NBA has a devastating case against them. But, as appealing as it is to simply incriminate the referees, I think that a study making that kind of claim has to be absolutely certain, which this study is not. I'm not saying it's not true, or that the evidence presented is wrong, I'm simply saying that they'd need a much stronger case against an association like the NBA.
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PostPosted: Sat May 05, 2007 9:38 pm
As long as the nba and the team owners make their money, they don't give a rat's arse
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PostPosted: Sun May 06, 2007 12:49 am
I really want to see the study look into technicals, cause that is where the culture clash seems most evident. I have seen Dirk squawk and bitch endlessly and rarely get t'd, whereas look at stackjax. My gut is there will be a big disparity, and that one would be very easy to find out, as who got t'd and who t'd them is a matter of public record, I think. I haven't read the study, but anything that improved reffing is all to the good. I mean, it is an issue in all sports.

Look at baseball, every ball and strike is a judgment call on an imaginary strike zone. The game is based on fictional balls and strikes which change from ump to ump and game to game wth the same ump.

Tennis made a HUGE step forward with the line calls being made by the sky cam - it shows that 98% of line judge calls are right, but think about it. That means 2% are wrong, and with as many as 200 line calls a match, that means 4 wrong points, enough to tip things.

Same thing with the study of the NBA. 4% may not seem like much, but if you are the team on the short end of, say a game where you came back from a 21 point deficit, and lost a 9 point lead in part due to a foul not called on a white superstar (Dirk) who fouls a black star (Jrich) on a 3, and then also not calling a over the back and same german superstar as he grabs a crucial rebound, it starts to add up.

I know reffing will never be perfect, but at the very least, the NBA shoud have a replay challenge like they do in the NFL. On the Dirk foul on JRich, the TV replay showed incontestable visual evidence that Dirk fouled him, and that could very well have swung the game. Even on the block charge you could have clear evidence. Say 2 challenges a half, and you lose a timeout if your challenge is wrong.
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PostPosted: Sun May 06, 2007 2:15 am
coltraning wrote:I know reffing will never be perfect, but at the very least, the NBA shoud have a replay challenge like they do in the NFL. On the Dirk foul on JRich, the TV replay showed incontestable visual evidence that Dirk fouled him, and that could very well have swung the game. Even on the block charge you could have clear evidence. Say 2 challenges a half, and you lose a timeout if your challenge is wrong.


I like the idea, but I'd only allow the challenge in the last two minutes of each half. Bball is a more dynamic game than football, and I don't really like the idea of slowing it down with challenges. Only for key plays that may change the outcome of the game.
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PostPosted: Sun May 06, 2007 2:42 am
coltraning wrote:I know reffing will never be perfect, but at the very least, the NBA shoud have a replay challenge like they do in the NFL. On the Dirk foul on JRich, the TV replay showed incontestable visual evidence that Dirk fouled him, and that could very well have swung the game. Even on the block charge you could have clear evidence. Say 2 challenges a half, and you lose a timeout if your challenge is wrong.



I said this in another thread. It is the only way to go and if there are at least 8-10 people designated to review replays, it will be quick and won't slow the game significantly. It is difficult to make an opinion because I've always liked the fastness of the nba, with the fast breaks off steals and so forth. Some steals might be slight fouls, with a slight touch on the arm while stripping the ball and that I find alright but it is on rebounds and shots that make a huge difference. What really needs to be reviewed is the fouls the refs do call, as some a questionable and others are not fouls at all
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PostPosted: Sun May 06, 2007 10:06 am
I don't really agree about limiting it to the last 2 minutes, because sometimes the crucial call will come earlier, but I like the idea of limiting it to 2 challenges a game. We should all write Stern and suggest this. With all of the negative attention on the refs from Joey Crawford and the study, it just might happen. You could even make the penalty a team technical and loss of possession if they are wrong, to dissuade frivolous challenges.
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PostPosted: Mon May 07, 2007 5:51 am
Too strict! I'm talking about review of most plays where a foul may have happened. Having enough people work the replay would be great
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PostPosted: Mon May 07, 2007 6:56 am
migya wrote:Too strict! I'm talking about review of most plays where a foul may have happened. Having enough people work the replay would be great


That would make each games last 6 hours...
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PostPosted: Mon May 07, 2007 7:20 am
TMC wrote:
migya wrote:Too strict! I'm talking about review of most plays where a foul may have happened. Having enough people work the replay would be great


That would make each games last 6 hours...



I've explained already in this thread what I mean. It wouldn't slow the game a whole lot but when a foul is called and the game is stopped, that can be reviewed quickly and won't cost any more time at least
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PostPosted: Mon May 07, 2007 10:40 am
migya wrote:I've explained already in this thread what I mean. It wouldn't slow the game a whole lot but when a foul is called and the game is stopped, that can be reviewed quickly and won't cost any more time at least


Best case, 30 seconds per foul... worst case, a couple of minutes if there's doubt.
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