On The Mike North Morning Show (WSCR, Chicago), North interviewed civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. Jackson spoke about the study of National Basketball Association officials showing tiny statistical differences between how white and black officials call fouls against black and white players, respectively. Jackson said not to be concerned about it:
If there were a protest by basketball players, protesting something that were happening with them, and there's a reaction to it, that's one thing. You may go to a basketball game, and there may be two contestable calls the whole game frankly. sometimes no contestable calls, sometimes a real tough, close call.Jackson said he's been in contact with the author of the study, and will have him as a guest on his radio show this coming Sunday morning.
But these guys run up and down the court, and these guys are flying through the air, you know, like saucers. And you know when a guy charges. You know when a guy hits another guy's hand when he's shooting. It's pretty much clear, and so to try to dig up out of that a race motive for calling fouls ... I believe we're going far afield.
Jackson commented that elevating the controversy of the study would cast an unnecessary cloud over the game, especially at playoff time. Since the NBA is something that brings fans of all stripes together, it's good that Jackson sees the study for what it is: an academic exercise.
So while it may be worthwhile from an academic standpoint to explore the differences in how fouls are called, it's less of a social concern than it is a quality control issue for the NBA.
Differences in racial prejudice probably vary more between individual referees of a given skin color than between the average of referees of different skin colors. As usual with racial issues, the between groups variation is far less than the within group variation.
Calls vary vastly more by franchise than by the skin color of the referee. Noting that there was a 30% difference between the number of personal fouls called against the most foul-prone and least foul-prone teams during the 2006-07 regular season, a 0.2% (2 in 1000) difference doesn't seem particularly important. That is not to imply a prejudice against certain franchises by officials, only that the impact of a team's coaching and style of play is two orders of magnitude greater than race. It's also well known, if not well documented, that players with a good reputation in the league have calls go their way more often than players with a bad or no reputation. There is a great deal more within a player's control than outside a player's control.
So kudos, Reverend Jackson. While we don't often agree politically, on this one I'm with you.
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