Project 21 Press Release: Referee Racism in Pro Basketball? Black Activists Skeptical of New Study

Black activists charged today that premature release of a new study claiming a racial bias by NBA referees will unnecessarily incite racial tensions.

Business professor Justin Wolfers of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Joseph Price, a graduate student of economics at Cornell University, are scheduled to release a study at the annual meeting of the Society of Labor Economists May 4 and the American Law and Economics Association May 6.  The study, which purports to analyze 600,000 foul calls over 13 seasons, claims the rate of fouls called against a player can rise by up to 4.5 percent if the team of three referees contains one or more members of another race.

Wolfers told the New York Times, “Basically, it suggests that if you spray-painted one of your starters white, you’d win more games.”

The Wolfers-Price study has not yet undergone peer review and is not yet scheduled for publication in a professional economics journal.

A National Basketball Association-commissioned study that is smaller in scope conflicts with Wolfers-Price study’s conclusions.  It finds no bias among referees.

“Racism continues to generate headlines regardless of its plausibility.  The only thing this study proves is that if you shout racism you can get national media attention,” says Project 21 Fellow Deneen Borelli.

“The authors of this study should be fouled out for exploiting racism,” added Borelli.  “Who would have thought the term racism would be applied to a game dominated by black players making millions of dollars?  Referees earn their position after years of training and working through the ranks of competitive officiating.  The coaches, players, fans, announcers and video replay constantly scrutinize calls made by a referee.  They are paid for their professionalism, expertise and judgment to referee games accurately and not to selectively color-code their calls.”

Rod Thorn, president of the New Jersey Nets, who is black, cast doubt on the Wolfers-Price study’s findings, telling the Times: “I don’t believe it.  I think officials get the vast majority of calls right.”

Black player Mike James of the Minnesota Timberwolves says of the alleged bias, “I’ve never seen it.”

“The human element is the difference between real sports and fantasy sports.  There should be equal enforcement of laws and rules, but we are not living in utopia,” says Project 21 member Council Nedd.  “One cannot commit a foul – or break a law for that matter – and then be surprised if they are caught and penalized accordingly.”

Yale law professor Ian Ayres, who examined the Wolfers-Price and NBA studies for the Times, exemplified a predilection for finding racism in our society when he claimed the bias is subconscious.  Commenting about the alleged racism in the NBA, Ayres said: “I would be more surprised if it didn’t exist.  There’s a growing consensus that a large proportion of racialized decisions is not driven by any conscious race decisions… 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.”

“Professor Ayres shows his own bias by automatically assuming whites and men are aggressors,” noted Project 21’s Borelli.  “The study he supports, however, says that bias in the NBA can be black-on-white as easily as white-on-black.  Is Professor Ayres willing to admit he may have a bias of his own toward white-on-black racism to the extent he has to explain the alleged animosity as subconscious?”

Project 21, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research, has been a leading voice of the African-American community since 1992.  For more information, contact David Almasi at (202) 543-4110 x11 or [email protected], or visit Project 21’s website at

Project 21, a leading voice of black conservatives for over 25 years, is sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Its members have been quoted, interviewed or published over 40,000 times since the program was created in 1992. Contributions to the National Center are tax-deductible and greatly appreciated, and may be earmarked exclusively for the use of Project 21.