Get the best of Commons Magazine — FREE!

May 10, 2007

Reffing in the NBA: Economist Study of "Bias" in Pro Basketball Says Much About The Reigning Narrative Of The Commons

A controversial study showing bias among NBA referees raises questions about economists' research methodology, with surprising consequences for the commons.

Perhaps you have heard about the study of supposed racial bias among referees in the National Basketball Association that two economists completed recently. The New York Times gave it front page play, which was not surprising, given that it combined two story lines that the Times cannot resist – namely, racial discrimination and something that “economists say.” The study has been dismissed on many sides, including by black NBA players. It appears fairly ridiculous on its face.

But it does reveal much about the economic mind – how it cognizes reality, and what it regards as truth. This is especially useful to us advocates for the commons. Some of the same mental tics that led economists to see racial bias in the NBA have led them to see inherent “tragedy” in commons, always and by definition. The fallacies of the NBA study shed light on the economistic fallacies that have beset discussion of the commons for as long as most of us can remember.

I have not read the study, but the press has been extensive. I gather that the authors did not talk with players, or even watch the games on which they are passing judgment. Instead, they looked at statistical representations of games – i.e., the box scores. Any fan knows that box scores frequently are disconnected from the reality of the game. Some players pad their offensive stats by loafing on defense, or their rebound totals by hanging around the basket. Crucial plays such as deflected passes and loose balls grabbed are totally left out.

But box scores are numbers. They provide a quantitative rendering of an event, and this puts it within the cognitive bandwidth of the economic mind. The economists here proceeded to count fouls called against each player and then correlated those with the racial compositions of the officiating crews. (In the NBA that’s three refs.) Their conclusion: whiter crews call more fouls against black players, and vice versa, though to a slightly lesser degree. The bias was not large but potentially it was significant, they said – enough to alter the outcome in some games.

Big problems were apparent right off. For one thing, the box scores don’t tell which of the three officials actually made a particular call. That means the authors had no idea whether a white ref was making a call on a black player, or vice versa, or whatever. Then too, a foul called against one player is in effect a foul called on behalf of another. That other player often gets to shoot foul shots as a result. How is it bias if a ref calls a foul against one black player but in favor of another one?

On top of that, the affect of the alleged bias upon the outcome of games was naive, to put it mildly. As Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe, one of the real pros among U.S. basketball writers, pointed out, the final margin of victory in the NBA often is misleading. Teams with large leads often send in the benchwarmers late in the game. The other team goes on a run. Twenty-point leads get whittled down to single digits, and thus potentially within the margin in which biased calls could affect the outcome. But that’s a box score illusion. The game never was as close as the final score suggests.

Another obvious problem was raised by Richard Jefferson of the New Jersey Nets. “What if you are half-black, half-white,” he said. “Because there is some mix in my family. I wonder how that works.” It’s a good question. The line between black and white can be blurry, to put it mildly. As Sam Smith of The Chicago Tribune pointed out, Jason Kidd, who is mixed and relatively light, counts as black in the study; while Yao Ming, the 7’6” center from China, counts as white.

Throw in Hispanics, South Americans, Croatians, et al., and pretty soon you have a real “muddle in a puddle”, as Dr. Seuss once put it. You could argue that players just didn’t want to touch this particular potato. But there was none of the clipped tense quality to their responses that usually comes through in such cases. Instead there was joking. I think the best response came from P.J. Brown, the respected veteran forward on the Chicago Bulls: “Somebody’s got too much time on their hands.”

Nobody – not players, not coaches, not even sportswriters, who are not averse to breathing life into a controversy – could recall a time when anyone had raised a suspicion in regards to refs and race. It would not have been difficult to find this out. But the economists didn’t ask. They just went to data, which is what economists do. The argument is that data is objective, and tells the truths that actual people won’t. But in reality data tells only as much as data can, which where humans are concerned often is not much.

Economists end up assuming that the whole of reality is just a larger version of the sliver that their box score represents. Take the matter of consumption. Economists assume it is always an unalloyed good, at least for the human doing it. There might be negative side effects for others, or “externalities” in the psychologically revealing term of the trade. But for the individual, to buy is to maximize one’s “utility.” If it weren’t, why else would we do it?

Actually there are lots of reasons. Ask a person who just has polished off a whole Sara Lee pound cake if they feel good that they did so and if their utility was maximized thereby. Ask someone who just paid an arm and a leg for auto body work after a fender bender if they are pleased the bumpers on their car were designed not to bump.

If you do so you will find a story that the statistics on consumption don’t tell and can’t tell. Objectivity can be imbecility if it ignores the internal dimension of the experience – that is, what it means to the people involved. That’s the case with the NBA ref study as well. That refs have biases is common knowledge. They are biased against rookies and in favor of stars. Players know this. They suspect that certain refs have it in for certain players. This is not unknown.

If these players, who know the refs so well, biases included, think that race is not among those biases, this is something that needs to be considered. Without that dimension of observation and experience, fact cannot rise to the stature of truth. But that’s the step that is so terrifying to the economic mind, suggesting as it does that data is just one thing to be considered rather than the only thing.

There is a kindred assumption here, concerning the psychology of the people involved. Economists do not study human nature. Instead they assume a version of it – the isolated integer of self-seeking, or “rational” man, whose rationality is really the self-absorption of a three year old, only with better math skills. In the NBA study they assume an equally cartoonish model, of white refs who favor white players and vice versa. Are they unaware of the reality of urban police forces – namely that black cops often are tougher than the white ones, for reasons too complicated to go into here? “I think I’ve gotten more techs [technical fouls] from black refs than white refs,” said Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers star.

It’s complicated, and complexity gets the economic mind out of joint. That’s especially so when it involves the human psyche. You cannot construct economic models when the basic element of those models is conflicted and divergent, and subject to a shifting social context that the models do not encompass.

All of these hang-ups come into play in the reigning narrative of the commons. Garrett Hardin, who wrote the seminal essay called “The Tragedy of the Commons,” and embedded that notion into the popular mind, was not himself an economist. But he proceeded like one. He started with an assumption – namely, hypothetical grazing lands that existed in no particular place. Then he assumed that this hypothetical commons was inhabited by hypothetical herdsmen who had no history or social structure, and who themselves were possessed of the peculiar myopia that the economist calls “rationality.”

The narrative was hermetically sealed against reality. Law school profs call this “putting the rabbit in the hat”; and given that he did so, it hardly is surprising that Hardin was able to pull the rabbit out. A commons became tragic by definition; and the syllogism has been enshrined in the economics texts.

Had Hardin bothered to get up from his desk and look at actual commons; and had he talked with people who inhabit them around the world, he would have discovered a different story. He would have found that commons often work wonderfully when there are fitting rules – formal or informal – for access and use. As E.P. Thompson, the historian, has put it regarding the tragedy narrative, actual commoners have not always been “so lacking in common sense.”

Common sense, in this sense, is larger than myopic calculus of homo economicus. It includes a capacity for both foresight and cooperation, which most of us have, at least some of the time. It includes as well a capacity to build social norms and institutions that give expression to this side of our natures. Much as the assumption that NBA refs are tougher on players of opposite complexions is a cartoon, so too is the one that portrays us all as isolated and relentless integers of financial gain, with no ability or inclination to think about anything else.

(Of course there are cases in which commons are tragic, just as there are cases in which the private and corporate are tragic. Generally this has been with large scale commons in which local norms and social sanctions cannot operate. The problem then is the lack of rules, not the lack of a corporate owner as market fundamentalists assert. Often the tragedy is not of a commons to begin with, but rather of a market mentality invading one. Native Americans didn’t wipe out the buffalo. European fur hunters did.)

It would help our economic friends to get out a little more. Put the algorithms and regressions aside, wash your minds of models and assumptions, and observe how the world works, when it does work. Observe especially how commons work, whether the lobster fisheries in Maine, or inner city basketball courts, or the prolific creative commons on the World Wide Web. You might find some surprises, which is not the worst thing.