More on the Price-Wolfers Study

Posted on May 2, 2007 by


Jonathan Weiler – of the Starting Five, and formerly of Sports Media Review – asked me to comment on a column by John Hollinger (insider blog).   Hollinger looked at the Price-Wolfers study – entitled “Racial Discrimination Among NBA Referees” – and noted that the size of the effect, according to Hollinger, seems small. 

As I told Weiler, this reaction misses the point.  In an e-mail to Weiler, I noted the following (which Weiler posted at The Starting Five):

Whether or not this costs a team a game or not is, in my thinking, irrelevant.  This is not a paper about basketball.  It is a paper about how people judge people who are different (in this case, of another race).  And this paper shows evidence that people are judged differently based on race.  Given the circumstance, that is an impressive finding.  NBA referees receive a great deal training.  Their decisions are consistently reviewed.  If they were racists, you would think they would not choose this line of employment. Given all this, Price-Wolfers still find an effect.  So I think that is the important story.  Even in a situation where you would think implicit bias wouldn’t be there, it is still there.

Perhaps we can think of it this way.  dwil (at The Starting Five)  noted the issue of “Driving While Black.”  I guess one could argue that this is not a real problem.  The incident he described didn’t impact his lifetime earnings.  He still survived.  So one could argue, DWB doesn’t have much “economic significance.”  But the fact that it happens should be a concern.  Whether it has an “economic” impact is not the point. 

Readers of The Wages of Wins know that we tend to be all about “economic significance.” But on this issue, I think the statistical significance is the important point. Given how NBA referees are evaluated, one might not expect to see any evidence of this bias.  Yet, there it is in the data.  And that tells us something bigger about how human beings evaluate information and make decisions.

– DJ