- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

With the NBA playoffs just beginning to percolate, the last thing anybody wants to read about is referees. (Unless, of course, the referee is Richard Steele, and he’s trying to keep Kobe from rabbit punching Shaq.)

But two newspaper stories yesterday, 2,000 miles apart, shined a bright, distracting light on the league’s whistle blowers. The first, in the New York Times, cited an academic study suggesting that race — both the official’s and the player’s — affects the calling of fouls. The second, meanwhile, in the Rocky Mountain News, noted that Tim Duncan hadn’t drawn a single personal in Game 3 of the Spurs-Nuggets series — and wondered whether the officials might have been mocking David Stern, in attendance that night, for suspending ref Joey Crawford after a run-in with Duncan.

Yup, it was quite a day for the NBA. The overseers of its games were called into question, and the overseer of its overseers, the commissioner, was called into question. Raise your hand if you’d rather talk about Dirk Nowitzki’s missing jumper or the impending Pistons-Ben Wallace reunion.

Let’s deal with the Times’ story first. To begin with, any issue of fairness in sports, of the levelness of the playing field, is worth raising. If NBA referees aren’t calling ‘em both ways, black as well as white, the world should know. But frankly, the figures cited by Justin Wolfers and Joseph Price, guaranteed to get a lot of attention in the coming days, aren’t all that damning, more an indication of an imperfect basketball world than a bigoted one.

Over a 13-season period (1991-2004), Wolfers, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton school of business, and Joseph Price, a graduate student in economics at Cornell, found that “black players receive around 0.12-0.20 more fouls per 48 minutes played [an increase of 2[1/2] to 41/2 percent] when the number of white referees officiating a game increases from zero to three.” They also, the Times reported, “found a corresponding bias in which black officials called fouls more frequently against white players, though that tendency was not as strong.”

The upshot? “Basically, it suggests that if you spray-painted one of your starters white, you’d win a few more games,” Wolfers told the paper.

Two more games, roughly. Depending on the player and the paint.

What was missing from the data Wolfers and Price compiled, however, was who whistled each foul — that is, which referee. So their conclusions involve a certain amount of conjecture (games often being officiated by racially mixed crews). There’s also no indication they took into account that white refs might call a game differently from black refs — just as whites tend to play the game differently from blacks. What a white ref might consider excessive contact, a black ref might not. It’s the same with baseball umpires and strike zones. Leagues want officiating to be uniform, but there’s only so much they can do.

Could it be — and I’m just playing devil’s advocate here — that blacks are called for more fouls because they’re simply more aggressive? I just checked the final stats for the 2006-07 regular season. There are only two whites among the top 50 in steals, Manu Ginobili (23rd) and Kirk Hinrich (35th). There are just nine whites, moreover, among the top 50 shot blockers. Might not this at least partially explain the Foul Imbalance? Or, in these tabloid times, must we blame it on something insidious like subconscious racism?

One more thing: Am I the only one who thinks Wolfers and Price are missing — by several miles — the big picture? Here they are, crunching their numbers, worrying about blacks in the NBA being assessed 0.12 more fouls per 48 minutes than whites, while one of their fellow Ivy League schools, Harvard, is in the headlines for having no black head coaches among its 41 varsity sports. (A situation the university just “remedied” by hiring Tommy Amaker to coach men’s basketball.) Granted, an NBA study is sexier — and might even get a professor tenured sooner — but still …

As for the other officiating story, the one involving Bob Delaney’s crew Saturday night, well, it just makes you shake your head. Maybe a group of refs really would thumb their noses at the commissioner like that — give crybaby Duncan carte blanche but bring down the hammer on everybody else (e.g. the Nuggets’ George Karl for leaving the coaching box). Rocky Mountain News columnist Dave Krieger certainly has no trouble believing it. “If it’s true,” he wrote, “it … represents a threat to the integrity of the game.”

Memo to Delaney and his Merry Band of Whistle Blowers: You guys had better not do it again, that’s for sure. Justin Wolfers and Joseph Price might be watching.

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