Unforgivable Blackness?

This piece by Daniel Engber over at Slate is not a new one–it was tied to and written in advance of the NBA Finals–but it stands as an excellent resource for those curious about the “Do NBA referees show a racial bias?” issue.

For the uninitiated, this discussion began in earnest last year when two Ivy League economists posited that white NBA referees called fouls more often against black players. The reverse arrangement–black referees and white players–showed no such bias. The existing bias, they wrote, was “large enough that the probability of a team winning is noticeably affected by the racial composition of the refereeing crew assigned to the game.”

In response, the NBA drafted its own study, which they claimed showed no such unsavory trends. Tellingly, though, they refused to allow many outside the league to vet their numbers. Some of those who did laid eyes upon it even found that it largely concurred with the original study. As defenses go, the NBA’s was about as effective as that of the Denver Nuggets.

Indeed, the NBA for years has had a curious relationship with race. As Engber observes, blacks were paid less than comparable white players for decades, and even today teams realize an attendance boost when they add white players to the roster. Then you’ve got David Stern’s serialized efforts to unhorse the hip-hop/gansta culture that is prevalent in the league and, we’re assured, bothers some people somewhere. All told, you’ve got a complicated stew of factors and considerations.

As for the referee issue specifically, perhaps it touches on something more primitive than familiar racial biases. Engber references another study, this one co-authored by Thomas Gilovich (who also wrote the best-selling How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life). The Gilovich study finds that athletes in black uniforms tend to get the short end of officiating, and it’s a trend that’s common to a host of sports, particularly American football and hockey. Gilovich summarizes the findings in How We Know:

“We showed groups of trained referees one of two videotapes of the same aggressive play in a football scrimmage, one with the aggressive team wearing white and one with it wearing black. The referees who saw the black-uniformed version rated the play as much more aggressive and more deserving of a penalty than those who saw the white-uniformed version. The referees ‘saw’ what this common negative association led them to expect to see. As a result of this bias, it is not surprising to learn that teams that wear black uniforms in these two sports have been penalized significantly more than average during the last two decades.”

This shouldn’t be surprising. In Western cultures, the color black cues us to think of, among other things, death, loneliness, fear, evil, sadness, mourning, bad guys, French nihilists, and other forms of human misery. It would be odd if Westerners, by force of instinct, didn’t react in such a way. But does it extend to skin color?

Consider what’s unique about the basketball player, at least among athletes in common team sports: he shows a lot of skin. Relative to heavily armored football and hockey players, the basketball player is almost nude. Plainly visible are his face, upper chest, arms, and legs. So while the basketball referee may be responding to the same anthropological prompts that the hockey and football officials are, there’s an important difference: in his case, the player’s skin–and most often not the player’s uniform–is the vehicle for blackness.

Another point: baseball seems to be exempted from these phenomena. Economist Daniel Hamermesh made some initial findings that suggested baseball umpires, in making ball-strike calls, behaved similarly to basketball referees. However, those findings have since been thoroughly debunked (see here and especially here).

The pattern doesn’t hold for a reason. In basketball, football, and hockey, foul-calling is distinct from the officiating that goes on in baseball. In baseball, there are no puck/ball challenges by defenders, and there are no “gladiatorial”-type confrontations within the bounds of play (save for the occasional home-plate collision). As well, the visual perspective of the home-plate umpire is different. He’s generally not paying attention to the hitter (the nominal target of his bias), and he’s not concerned with what the hitter does (save for the occasional checked swing), regardless of skin color or uniform color. No, the home-plate umpire in those moments is worried about the path of the pitched ball and the strike zone.

So we have the officials of sports in which the offense controls the ball and in which defenders physically challenge the offense responding negatively to the color black. Insofar as NBA refs are concerned, this leaves us with three possibilities: they’re consciously making racially motivated calls, they’re unconsciously making racially motivated calls, or they’re unconsciously reacting to the color black itself.

Obviously, there’s a lot granularity to what we think we know. Delving further would require us to answer questions that as a group can best be described as, well, a thicket of absurdities. For instance, do black basketball players in black uniforms have it especially rough? Do NBA officials show a stronger bias against dark-skinned black players than against light-skinned black players? Who’s going to get the calls, white guy in black uniform or black guy in white uniform? And so on and so on, ad infinitum it would seem.

In any event, if you believe the outputs of the initial study on NBA referees and race, then you’re likely down to the three explanations above. All three are regrettable, but only one is a moral condemnation of white NBA refs. If nothing else, they need to ask some probing questions of themselves.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Unforgivable Blackness?

  1. Pingback: It Takes an Army « SPOLITICAL

  2. FQ

    I remember hearing about this study. Some questions: does the study control for the age of referees and length of tenure? Does the study also control for referee placement and type of foul?
    Sometimes the explanation is much simpler (white referees are generally older, have poorer eye sight, are calling fouls out of position, etc). The game has changed so much over the last 10 years. And what about an alternative hypothesis regarding non-called fouls? Wouldn’t we see white referees also calling more fouls to benefit white players?

  3. daynperry

    Good questions, FQ. I wish I knew the answers. As I said above, I think studies like this–incomplete yet intriguing–raise more questions than they answer. I love to see a more exhaustive study of the matter–like the one you outline–undertaken.

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