"Foul" Racial Bias in the NBA?

The Times' crusade for social justice knows no out-of-bounds: "An academic study of the National Basketball Association...suggests that a racial bias found in other parts of American society has existed on the basketball court as well."

The Times' quest for social justice knows no out-of-bounds, judging by the front-page placement Wednesday of "Study of N.B.A. Sees Racial Bias in Calling Fouls" by sportswriter Alan Schwarz. Years after failing to secure Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor the right to golf at Augusta National Golf Club, the Times has now turned to the plight of multimillionaire NBA players who get bad foul calls.

"An academic study of the National Basketball Association, whose playoffs continue tonight, suggests that a racial bias found in other parts of American society has existed on the basketball court as well.

"A coming paper by a University of Pennsylvania professor and a Cornell University graduate student says that, during the 13 seasons from 1991 through 2004, white referees called fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players.

"Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School, and Joseph Price, a Cornell graduate student in economics, found a corresponding bias in which black officials called fouls more frequently against white players, though that tendency was not as strong. They went on to claim that the different rates at which fouls are called 'is large enough that the probability of a team winning is noticeably affected by the racial composition of the refereeing crew assigned to the game.'"

Would the Times have publicized an anti-global warming paper on its front page with these loose standards? "The paper by Mr. Wolfers and Mr. Price has yet to undergo formal peer review before publication in an economic journal, but several prominent academic economists said it would contribute to the growing literature regarding subconscious racism in the workplace and elsewhere, such as in searches by the police.

"The three experts who examined the Wolfers-Price paper and the N.B.A.'s materials were Ian Ayres of Yale Law School, the author of 'Pervasive Prejudice?' and an expert in testing for how subtle racial bias, also known as implicit association, appears in interactions ranging from the setting of bail amounts to the tipping of taxi drivers; David Berri of California State University-Bakersfield, the author of 'The Wages of Wins,' which analyzes sports issues using statistics; and Larry Katz of Harvard University, the senior editor of the Quarterly Journal of Economics."

As intriguing as the findings may turn out to be, the Times has often embarrassed itself when venturing into the crossroads of social justice and sports - most recently with its shoddy coverage of the Duke "rape" case. A more amusing instance was the paper's embarrassing and ultimately fruitless crusade against Augusta National Golf Club for not admitting women, led by then-Executive Editor Howell Raines.

Back on November 18, 2002, the Times actually editorialized in favor of Tiger Woods boycotting the upcoming Masters, presumably because Woods is black, and pushed for a membership for Sandra Day O'Connor: "Tiger Woods, who has won the Masters three times, could simply choose to stay home in April....Of course, if Mr. Woods took that view, the club might suddenly find room for a few female members. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, for example, is said to be a very good golfer."

Schwarz concluded: his story:"Both men cautioned that the racial discrimination they claim to have found should be interpreted in the context of bias found in other parts of American society.

"'There's bias on the basketball court,' Mr. Wolfers said, 'but less than when you're trying to hail a cab at midnight.'"

Of course, in Manhattan many cab drivers are immigrants from South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, so white-on-black discrimination would be fairly uncommon even if it did exist.