Blowing whistle on alleged biases in NBA, life

The Baltimore Sun

Read the report in yesterday's New York Times about a scholarly paper that suggests racial bias in NBA officiating, chew on it long enough, and there's only one conclusion you can come to:

The biggest mistake James Naismith ever made when he invented basketball was not dressing the players in long pants, long-sleeved shirts and ski masks.

Since he didn't, race has been part of basketball's story ever since, and it always will be, no matter how it seems as if it's not. Like when one, or two, or three white officials blow their whistles when as many as 10 black players are on the court.

The authors of an upcoming paper, done by a professor at Pennsylvania and a graduate student at Cornell, find statistical evidence from 13 years' worth of research that black players get called for more fouls by white officials than white players do, and vice versa. The authors say they've accounted for all sorts of variables, such as game conditions, differing talent levels and strategy.

They also said, to the Times, nice, incendiary things such as, "Basically, it suggests that if you spray-painted one of your starters white, you'd win a few more games."

Whether you're a fan who gets his basketball analysis from Imus in the Morning, or one who hasn't slept in two weeks because you can't miss a second of the West Coast playoff games, you probably think this makes no sense. You think, when Shaquille O'Neal and Ben Wallace fight for position, how does a white ref call it? How about a black ref?

What about when Steve Blake is pressing Steve Nash full court? What about when Yao Ming steps out to guard Dirk Nowitzki? What if the referee watching them is a rabid isolationist who's pro-American and hates foreigners? What if that referee is black, or white?

What if that ref has both Rasheed Wallace and Stephen Jackson in his face bugging their eyes and flinging their arms heavenward over a particular call? What if it's Manu Ginobili and Andrei Kirilenko doing the eye-bugging and arm-flinging?

That's the nature of the NBA today, obvious to anyone who even casually watches. It's all about black and white, and about everything but black and white, at the same time. It's like no other sport, in dozens of ways, including the exposure, court dimension and proximity to spectators. Race (and its relatives, ethnicity and culture) are literally in your face.

Thus, questions about how race affects officiating arise, and apparently lead to the top minds of our top universities striving to break it down scientifically. In response, so did the NBA. The studies go down slightly different paths and reach different conclusions.

In the NBA's favor is the fact that it looked at who made the specific calls (which, because they took their data from box scores, the Penn and Cornell researchers did not do) in deducing there's no bias.

But biases are in the nature of our society, not just today, but always and probably forever. You can't, no matter how much you try, discount the idea that subconscious prejudices come into play. Pro-you, anti-them, or whatever has been drilled into your head in your years on this planet.

In the heat of the moment, it's not inconceivable that an official, no matter how full of integrity he is, sees Shaq and Vlade Divac collide in the lane and forms the instinctive thought --- faster than he can blow breath into the whistle - "That enormous black guy can't get away with that."

Or vice versa: An official sees Kirk Hinrich strip Dwyane Wade going full-steam toward the basket and, in the blink of an eye, concludes, "No way a white guy can pull that off cleanly."

A few have dug back into the history of the pro game --- the late David Halberstam as well as Terry Pluto, to name the more prominent ones - and as they explore the racial dynamics, there's barely even a tiny hint of it in the way games were called.

And most of those who have been around the NBA during the time the study was done (1991-2004) - and that would include me - have never heard or spoken of anything like that. Lots of scrutiny, contemplation and complaints about officiating, but never has there been an implication that the darkness or lightness of complexions ever factored in.

The study's results, then, make no practical sense. This one least of all: Teams with more white players win more often when their games are officiated by all- or mostly white crews. Which probably has them rolling on the floor in Sacramento, where a largely international contingent kept getting whipped by Shaq, Kobe and Co. in the early part of this decade and griped at top volume about the officiating the entire time.

The study hints at racial profiling. In real life that's borne out by real people describing real experiences of being pulled over for DWB (driving while black). But the next condemnation of FWB (fouling while black) in the NBA will be the first.

Joel Litvin, the NBA's president of basketball operations, told that the paper's conclusions are "flat-out wrong."

Still, we are living where we are when we are. So, jumping to that conclusion is also flat-out wrong.

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