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Calling Foul on NBA Racism

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NBA referees are a bit racist, according to a study written up in the New York Times today—white refs call more fouls on black players, and vice versa. The study found that under the eyes of three white refs, "black players receive around 0.12-0.20 more fouls per 48 minutes played (an increase of 2 ½-4 ½ percent)" than when judged by black refs. And apparently this little shift makes an appreciable difference: for each additional black starter, a team's winning percentage in any particular game would drop by one point. "The team with the greater share of playing time by black players during those 13 years won 48.6 percent of games — a difference of about two victories in an 82-game season," says the Times.

This is an interesting proposition, and not entirely surprising, based on common sense and much of our understanding of race and psychology. But I'm a little skeptical about any study that tries to perfectly pin down such a extremely complicated action with statistics.

To remove any potential bias from their data, they corrected for "the players’ assertiveness on the court, as defined by their established rates of assists, steals, turnovers and other statistics; and more subtle factors like how some substitute players enter games specifically to commit fouls."

Do they really think they can quantify a basketball player's assertiveness through his stats to the point where they can see such an exacting difference? How do they know what exactly what coaches say to their subs about fouling? Any way you slice it, you can't tell everything about a player by his stats, particularly in a sport where numbers are so notoriously unimportant (as opposed to, say, baseball).

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