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Wednesday, May 02, 2007,11:45 AM
Study of N.B.A. Sees Racial Bias in Calling Fouls

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.”

N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern said in a telephone interview that the league saw a draft copy of the paper last year, and was moved to do its own study this March using its own database of foul calls, which specifies which official called which foul.

“We think our cut at the data is more powerful, more robust, and demonstrates that there is no bias,” Mr. Stern said.

Three independent experts asked by The Times to examine the Wolfers-Price paper and materials released by the N.B.A. said they considered the Wolfers-Price argument far more sound. The N.B.A. denied a request for its underlying data, even with names of officials and players removed, because it feared that the league’s confidentiality agreement with referees could be violated if the identities were determined through box scores.

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.

“I would be more surprised if it didn’t exist,” Mr. Ayres said of an implicit association bias in the N.B.A. “There’s a growing consensus that a large proportion of racialized decisions is not driven by any conscious race discrimination, but that it is often just driven by unconscious, or subconscious, attitudes. When you force people to make snap decisions, they often can’t keep themselves from subconsciously treating blacks different than whites, men different from women.”

Mr. Berri added: “It’s not about basketball — it’s about what happens in the world. This is just the nature of decision-making, and when you have an evaluation team that’s so different from those being evaluated. Given that your league is mostly African-American, maybe you should have more African-American referees — for the same reason that you don’t want mostly white police forces in primarily black neighborhoods.”

To investigate whether such bias has existed in sports, Mr. Wolfers and Mr. Price examined data from publicly available box scores. They accounted for factors like the players’ positions, playing time and All-Star status; each group’s time on the court (black players played 83 percent of minutes, while 68 percent of officials were white); calls at home games and on the road; and other relevant data.

But they said they continued to find the same phenomenon: that players who were similar in all ways except skin color drew foul calls at a rate difference of up to 4 ½ percent depending on the racial composition of an N.B.A. game’s three-person referee crew.

Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks and a vocal critic of his league’s officiating, said in a telephone interview after reading the paper: “We’re all human. We all have our own prejudice. That’s the point of doing statistical analysis. It bears it out in this application, as in a thousand others.”
Asked if he had ever suspected any racial bias among officials before reading the study, Mr. Cuban said, “No comment.”

Two veteran players who are African-American, Mike James of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Alan Henderson of the Philadelphia 76ers, each said that they did not think black or white officials had treated them differently.
“If that’s going on, then it’s something that needs to be dealt with,” James said. “But I’ve never seen it.”

Two African-American coaches, Doc Rivers of the Boston Celtics and Maurice Cheeks of the Philadelphia 76ers, declined to comment on the paper’s claims. Rod Thorn, the president of the New Jersey Nets and formerly the N.B.A.’s executive vice president for basketball operations, said: “I don’t believe it. I think officials get the vast majority of calls right. They don’t get them all right. The vast majority of our players are black.”

Mr. Wolfers and Mr. Price spend 41 pages accounting for such population disparities and more than a dozen other complicating factors.

For the 1991-92 through 2003-4 seasons, the authors analyzed every player’s box-score performance — minutes played, rebounds, shots made and missed, fouls and the like — in the context of the racial composition of the three-person crew refereeing that game. (The N.B.A. did not release its record of calls by specific officials to either Mr. Wolfers, Mr. Price or The Times, claiming it is kept for referee training purposes only.)

Mr. Wolfers said that he and Mr. Price classified each N.B.A. player and referee as either black or not black by assessing photographs and speaking with an anonymous former referee, and then using that information to predict how an official would view the player. About a dozen players could reasonably be placed in either category, but Mr. Wolfers said the classification of those players did not materially change the study’s findings.

During the 13-season period studied, black players played 83 percent of the minutes on the floor. With 68 percent of officials being white, three-person crews were either entirely white (30 percent of the time), had two white officials (47 percent), had two black officials (20 percent) or were entirely black (3 percent).

Mr. Stern said that the race of referees had never been considered when assembling crews for games.

With their database of almost 600,000 foul calls, Mr. Wolfers and Mr. Price used a common statistical technique called multivariable regression analysis, which can identify correlations between different variables. The economists accounted for a wide range of factors: that centers, who tend to draw more fouls, were disproportionately white; that veteran players and All-Stars tended to draw foul calls at different rates than rookies and non-stars; whether the players were at home or on the road, as officials can be influenced by crowd noise; particular coaches on the sidelines; 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.

Mr. Wolfers and Mr. Price examined whether otherwise similar black and white players had fouls-per-minute rates that varied with the racial makeup of the refereeing crew.

“Across all of these specifications,” they write, “we find that black players receive around 0.12-0.20 more fouls per 48 minutes played (an increase of 2 ½-4 ½ percent) when the number of white referees officiating a game increases from zero to three.”

Mr. Wolfers and Mr. Price also report a statistically significant correlation with decreases in points, rebounds and assists, and a rise in turnovers, when players performed before primarily opposite-race officials.

“Player-performance appears to deteriorate at every margin when officiated by a larger fraction of opposite-race referees,” they write. The paper later notes no change in free-throw percentage. “We emphasize this result because this is the one on-court behavior that we expect to be unaffected by referee behavior.”

Mr. Wolfers and Mr. Price claim that these changes are enough to affect game outcomes. Their results suggested that for each additional black starter a team had, relative to its opponent, a team’s chance of winning would decline from a theoretical 50 percent to 49 percent and so on, a concept mirrored by the game evidence: 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.

“Basically, it suggests that if you spray-painted one of your starters white, you’d win a few more games,” Mr. Wolfers said.

The N.B.A.’s reciprocal study was conducted by the Segal Company, the actuarial consulting firm which designed the in-house data-collection system the league uses to identify patterns for referee-training purposes, to test for evidence of bias. The league’s study was less formal and detailed than an academic paper, included foul calls for only two and a half seasons (from November 2004 through January 2007), and did not consider differences among players by position, veteran status and the like. But it did have the clear advantage of specifying which of the three referees blew his whistle on each foul.

The N.B.A. study reported no significant differences in how often white and black referees collectively called fouls on white and black players. Mr. Stern said he was therefore convinced “that there’s no demonstration of any bias here — based upon more robust and more data that was available to us because we keep that data.”

Added Joel Litvin, the league’s president for basketball operations, “I think the analysis that we did can stand on its own, so I don’t think our view of some of the things in Wolfers’s paper and some questions we have actually matter as much as the analysis we did.”

Mr. Litvin explained the N.B.A.’s refusal to release its underlying data for independent examination by saying: “Even our teams don’t know the data we collect as to a particular referee’s call tendencies on certain types of calls. There are good reasons for this. It’s proprietary. It’s personnel data at the end of the day.”

The percentage of black officials in the N.B.A. has increased in the past several years, to 38 percent of 60 officials this season from 34 percent of 58 officials two years ago. Mr. Stern and Mr. Litvin said that the rise was coincidental because the league does not consider race in the hiring process.

Mr. Wolfers and Mr. Price are scheduled to present their paper at the annual meetings of the Society of Labor Economists on Friday and the American Law and Economics Association on Sunday. They will then submit it to the National Bureau of Economic Research and for formal peer review before consideration by an economic journal.

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.”


posted by R J Noriega
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,11:39 AM
China's Muckrakers for Hire Deliver Exposés With Impact
By Edward Cody

QINGLONG, China -- Xu Xiang, a 37-year-old reporter, showed up in this Sichuan province town in December, tasked with investigating allegations that officials had forced residents off their farmland. Over two days, he interviewed farmers and local authorities, taking time to view the gleaming white chemical factory and the long rows of unoccupied stores that have replaced many of Qinglong's rich green rice paddies.

In January, Xu posted an article on his Web site, China's Famous Reporter Online Investigations, alleging corruption. By March, according to delighted farmers and less delighted local officials, the former Communist Party secretary for the surrounding county, the local land administration chief and several other Qinglong officials had been arrested in an investigation by the party's Discipline Inspection Commission that is still underway.

"Of course, we were very happy to hear the news," said Shuai Changqing, one of the farmers who led the fight against local officials.

The farmers, it turned out, had more than a small role in making the news. One of their own had hired Xu as a reporter, for a negotiated fee of $265.

What happened here in Qinglong was typical of a new kind of journalism that is emerging in response to the Chinese Communist Party's suffocating censorship of newspapers, radio and television. With no more investment than a computer and a taste for taking risks, several dozen Web-based investigative journalists have set up sites and started advertising their willingness -- for a price -- to look into scandals that traditional reporters cannot touch.

Official censorship still protects authorities, including corrupt authorities, more than two decades after China launched itself on a path to reform. In a society that is swiftly modernizing, the security-conscious Communist Party continues to fear, and filter, the spread of information.

Although censorship is imposed at all levels of the party and government, much of it is self-inflicted by editors who are afraid of losing their jobs and are regularly coached by party officials on what to publish or broadcast.

The emerging Internet journalists for hire, however, have no jobs to protect; they are self-employed. And although the freedom is greater, the returns are meager. Xu said he has earned a little less than $4,000 since starting up 10 months ago. In addition, he has to pay two employees. To supplement his income and help support his two children, he recently found a day job at Democracy and Legal System magazine.

Xu and Li Xinde, another Web reporter for hire, said they take fees from those who can afford to pay but also investigate for free if victims cannot raise any money. Often they ask only for their expenses, such as plane fare and hotel costs, they said.

"It's not strange for the self-supported Web-site reporters to ask someone to cover transportation expenses," Li said, "and usually the reporters clearly state that on their Web sites or in e-mails."

Party censorship also extends to the Internet, which is policed by an elaborate computer system and an army of snoops who monitor what Chinese people read and say online. But that censorship comes after the fact; it can only monitor what has been posted. Web condottieri such as Xu and Li may get bounced off the Internet, but only after their articles reach the public and get passed around. If one site is blocked, they quickly start up another.

Xu, who has been sued for defamation by one group of officials, said he takes care in his articles to attack only the misdeeds of corrupt local officials and not the government in general. He has studied law, he said, to avoid getting into trouble with the police in the cat-and-mouse game he is forced to play.

I am against corrupt officials," he said in an interview, "but I am not against the Communist Party."

That is just the way Shuai Xingyou, a Qinglong native, said he felt when he got in touch with Xu on behalf of his parents and their neighbors in the little village of Lianchi, part of Qinglong township. "The government of China is very good," said Shuai, now a stock trader in the nearby provincial capital of Chengdu. "I support President Hu Jintao."

The problem, he recalled, was that local officials early last year colluded with businessmen to confiscate about 25 acres of paddies, affecting several thousand farmers and their families, then offered compensation amounting to only $15,000 per acre. "Their slogan was economic development, but the money for the land ended up in their pockets," Shuai said.

For months, the farmers protested. They petitioned local officials. They petitioned provincial officials in Chengdu. They traveled to Beijing, more than 900 miles to the northeast, and petitioned national officials. But nothing worked.

Shuai become so absorbed by what had happened to his parents and their neighbors that he began neglecting his stock trades. He bought lawbooks. He bought government regulations in pamphlet form. He searched the Internet for speeches by Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao in which they promised protection for farmers whose land was under pressure from economic development.

"What happened here didn't seem right," he said.

Shuai went from house to house explaining to the farmers what he had read and urging them to resist the confiscation. He handed out Wen's annual government report and pointed at the section on protection for farmers. He read the law to them in their baked-mud, concrete-floored farmhouses and around courtyard wells.

He said he was thrown into jail in surrounding Pengshan county for 31 days because of his activism. Local leaders visited him in his cell and tried to persuade him to call off the campaign, he recalled, but when he was released, he started again with renewed vigor.

Shuai also enlisted the help of Wang Shuangquan, a respected former official in a neighboring Qinglong village. Wang, 63, who still wears a Mao suit and proudly recites Communist Party slogans, said what happened was unfair because, deprived of their land, the farmers had no other means of making a living. He took documents describing the situation to several levels of local government and made the trip to Beijing as well, only to be dismissed.

"They said they wanted the land for construction and economic development, but in fact they colluded with the businessmen," Wang said of officials. "Farmers cannot live without land, but local officials don't care. Today they are local officials; tomorrow they change to be bosses."

Over the months, Shuai and others said, several hundred of the farmers mounted repeated protests, sitting on their land and trying to prevent bulldozers from getting it ready for construction. Led by Shuai, farmers fixed posters to stakes and drove them into the contested ground; the posters showed revered Chinese leaders Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Sun Yat-sen.

The protests were broken up, sometimes brutally, and construction continued relentlessly. Since then, the "Qinglong Economic Development Zone"
administration has occupied spanking new headquarters with glass walls, and rows of stores and warehouses have risen around it. A giant billboard has gone up on the road from Chengdu, depicting a large industrial zone and inviting businessmen to come to Qinglong and "get rich."


posted by R J Noriega
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