Thursday, May 3, 2007

The NBA is racially charged?

First of all, second round starts Saturday, I should have match up breakdowns by tomorrow night. There are going to be two great games on TV tonight, and unless a miracle happens, I wont be able to watch either, major bummer. I’ll say this though, Houston and Utah are both playing great basketball, and I expect the Jazz to extend to seven tonight. I also expect Golden State to take care of business tonight, but if the Mavs win, I don’t think Golden State has the ability to win a game seven on the road.

The biggest story right now, or what should be the biggest story right now (honestly, what is Kobe doing on’s front page?) is the study done by Justin Wolfers, a business professor at Penn, and Joseph Price, a Cornell economics student. As you might have heard, these two analyzed foul calls and turnovers from 1991 to 2004 and found that referee teams (which are made of three people) that are predominantly white make 4.5% more calls on black players. While the opposite is also true (black refs calling more on white players) the effect there is much less and seems to be negligible.

Now, ever since David Stern has begun to remarket the league back in the mid ‘80s, the NBA’s racial make up has been relegated to elephant in the room, everyone sees it and no one in any official position talks about it. Because the NBA partially controls the content being aired on ESPN, TNT, and ABC, the major media outlets don’t address it much either. So when the New York Times propels race relations to the front page, the NBA quickly was up in arms with a reaction. The NBA produced its own study, written by unnamed ‘experts,’ which examined individual calls and claimed no bias. While the NBA’s study is useful in that it isolates individual referee’s calls, it has a much smaller data base (148,000 calls, that might not even be a full season), and its anonymous authorship coupled with the fact that it is produced in house and not by independent scholars makes it highly dubious.

Is race an issue in the NBA, with out a doubt. Race plays a role in much of what the NBA does as an organization, and some would argue that it has a lot to do with how the fans interact. The NBA is a league in which predominantly white league leadership oversees a predominantly black group of sports-entertainers for the benefit of a predominantly white fan base. There is a lot that can be said about this, and if anyone is interested, I highly recommend David Shields work Black Planet. ( Shields, a professor at Washinton University, followed around the Seatle Sonics in the mid ‘90s, producing an insightful look at race’s role in the NBA and how it is addressed (or unaddressed) by the league, its players, and its fans.

So what about this new study? I cannot say I’m surprised. Everyone who takes an intro to psych class can tell you how powerful stereotype is when it operates on the subconscious. Referees are human beings, and they have their prejeduces, even if they do not foster them consciously or overtly. No one is claming that the NBA’s refs, or league officials for that matter, are racist, rather they are claiming that race plays a role in the NBA, just like it does (unfortunitly) everywhere else. I would like to be able to say that we live in a fully color blind world, I cannot. Certianly, the relationship between blacks and whites is nothing like it used to be, and as far as race relations go, I think this society has been heading in a good direction. But no one should expect that we can completely remove human prejudices, even from the most impartial observers. More important than the question of whether this study holds water or not, I think, is the issue of what should be done now. Is there a way to remove some of this prejudice? There must be, though I cannot think of anything practical anyone can do right now. Rather than outright denying these claims, the NBA should be working on ways of alleviating the problem, if it can. Of course, to do this would be to acknowledge that race is, indeed, a powerful force in the NBA, just as it is in all of society; but if the NBA took necessary steps to take care of this issue, it would speak volumes about its moral priorities as an organization. As it stands right now, Stern and his lawyers look like a bunch of scared business men trying to cover their asses.

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