Biased Refs? Let’s Discuss Something Serious Instead

By Stephen A. Smith
Updated: May 3, 2007

BasketballPHILADELPHIA — Allow me a few moments of your time regarding an issue that is a waste of time.

Race is usually relevant to me. There usually is some sensitive issue to address, some reason to disseminate a message in an effort to generate understanding and better relationships among the masses.

But not today, in the aftermath of a report in Wednesday’s New York Times about racial bias involving NBA referees. Not today, after a study that asserts that white officials called fouls at a greater rate against black players than against whites.

This is a waste of time.

According to the article, a University of Pennsylvania professor and a graduate student from Cornell University conducted a study of NBA officials from 1991 to 2004 and concluded that white officials inherently held prejudices against black athletes.

They pointed out that white males make up 68 percent of NBA officials, that 30 percent of the time, games were officiated by three white males. Three-man black officiating teams were present just 3 percent of the time.

The study by Justin Wolfers, assistant professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School, and Joseph Price, a Cornell grad student in economics, goes on to claim that wins and losses were “noticeably affected by the racial composition of the refereeing crew.”

Never mind what the study shows. We can leave that to commissioner David Stern and the league office. Or to the Society of Labor Economists and the American Law and Economics Association: Wolfers and Price are scheduled to present their paper to them this weekend.

I’d rather ask why.

Why do we need to address such frivolity, a report devoid of anything substantive enough to accuse anyone of anything, as far as I’m concerned? Why now, in the midst of NBA playoff action, further diverting attention away from the games?

More important, just weeks after dealing with the rape case involving Duke’s lacrosse team, along with Don Imus’ firing and the repercussions that won’t go away, why should anyone care about this report at all?

Especially when we’re getting a perceived – as opposed to a real – problem.

On the face of it, there are a lot of problems with this report, the most obvious that Wolfers and Price took more than a decade to reveal something that no one considered a problem.

In my 11 years covering the NBA, speaking to hundreds of players, I have never – ever – encountered a player who looked at the officials covering this league and claimed they were racist.


When Allen Iverson complained about Steve Javie, he wasn’t talking about Ron Garretson, another white referee. Same when Tim Duncan cursed at Joey Crawford. Every player has officials he doesn’t like, and vice versa. But they also understand that sports is as close to a meritocracy as we can get these days.

“The paper, the study, is completely wrong, as far as we’re concerned,” NBA president Joel Litvin said yesterday. “We’ve proven it through our own studies. We believe their studies are inferior. Their methodology is inferior.”

“And we don’t have any problems publicizing our findings of the more than 148,000 calls over a 21/2-year period we looked into studying ourselves. We know which referees made which calls against which players. Our data is extensive, and it’s thorough. We are not concerned about it all.”

If only black America could say the same thing.

The truth is, we can’t. No one can, because reports like this serve to alienate and polarize instead of mobilize and bring people together. Every time something benign is translated into some sort of conspiracy, it does more to instill excuses in a black community that is continuously in search of evidence as to why it feels disenfranchised.

Meanwhile, it provokes the uncomfortable combination of fear and disgust from a white populace that is exhausted from trying to figure out what it can or can’t say and do.

In the end, we all go our separate ways, carrying our cynicism, vitriol and stress back into private confines, believing things will just never change. Meanwhile, air time, print space and recognition go to numbers-crunchers and theorists looking to create discussion where there is no need for it.

I’d love to ask why again, to figure out what the point is in all of this.

But I’ve had trouble catching a cab for the last 20 years.

I’d love to see what the stats would say about that.