Sports Corner – Racial Discrimination by Referees

by robekulick

Most of you actually reading this know that I’m not much of a sports person, but these two studies are really interesting…also I’m really tired and I won’t have to write much to get the point of these two studies across.

Basically, two statistical analyses in two of the most prestigious economics journals recently found evidence that NBA referees and MLB umpires discriminate against players of the opposite race.

Here is a link to Price and Wolfers (2010) which appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Economics:

They explain:

"We find that more personal fouls are awarded against players when they
are officiated by an opposite-race officiating crew than when they are officiated by
an own-race refereeing crew. These biases are sufficiently large so that they affect
the outcome of an appreciable number of games. Our results do not distinguish
whether the bias stems from the actions of white or black referees."

The second study, Parsons et al. (2011) appeared in the American Economic Review:

They explain:

"Major League Baseball umpires express their racial/ethnic preferences when they evaluate
pitchers.  Strikes are called less often if the umpire and pitcher do not match race/ethnicity, but
mainly where there is little scrutiny of umpires.  Pitchers understand the incentives and throw
pitches that allow umpires less subjective judgment (e.g., fastballs over home plate) when they
anticipate bias."

This one is particularly interesting because it subjects that at some level pitchers are aware of this phenomenon and change their behavior accordingly.

Of course, it is totally unclear whether any of this behavior is willful on the part of the referees and umpires. To the extent that some of this behavior is unconscious there may not be a whole lot that sports leagues can do to correct the problems other than to rely more on technology in assessing calls…and at least in the context of fouls in basket ball, I’m not sure if that’s even technologically feasible (though for baseball I suspect tradition rather than technological constraints keep umpires safely employed at homeplate.)

On a totally different note, its pretty cool that people doing research that is in the “fun/interesting” category got papers in such high level journals.  Cool in a very geeky sort of way, but cool nonetheless.