On Wednesday Alan Schwarz of the NY Times wrote an article about how two academics have just concluded a study that they say shows racial bias in NBA refs. While I think the greater problem here is that ALL NBA refs suck, I can't agree with the academics at all.
The reason why is because, according to Schwarz's article, the study (which is not yet publicly available) has "classified each N.B.A. player and referee as either black or not black by assessing photographs and speaking with an anonymous former referee."
Ok, so now we only have two groups, black players and non-black players. Of the non-black players, many of them are international players. International players make up more than 12% of the NBA currently and they have been a significant part of the NBA during the timeframe of the study.
So let's make this clear right here and right now. International players for years have tended not to play defense anywhere near as hard as American (white or black) players. This is the result of international players (primarily Europeans) focusing on other aspects of the game, namely key offensive fundamentals (like passing and shooting) and teamwork. Americans, meanwhile, have a much greater emphasis placed on flashy moves, dunks and mind-blowing blocks (this is your fault ESPN). Americans also focus more on one-on-one offense and defense, which is more conducive to fouls, rather than international team oriented defense.
This is not to say international players play no defense, but over the course of the study, 1991-2004, these players have been historically known as being "soft" on defense.
Let's take some examples of good to great recent international players:
Steve Nash - Two time MVP, but horrible defender. Doesn't foul much.
Dirk Nowitzki - Will be this year's MVP, but a poor defender. Doesn't foul much.
Peja Stojakovic - Couldn't guard me.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas - Slower than a tortise.
Arvydas Sabonis - Couldn't jump.
This is not an anomoly, it's a trend. International players have tended to put less emphasis on defense than American players, and as a result, it could make the study appear to have a racial bias when there is in fact none.
I will also say this in defense of international players. There have been/are international players who are good defenders (Andrea Bargnani, although not in the study, is an example). But again, international players have a much greater appreciation for the fundamentals of basketball, which keeps them from attempting highlight defensive plays that 9 times out of 10 result in fouls rather than actual good defensive plays.
The true test to determine whether or not there is a racial bias in basketball would have been to compare black and white AMERICAN players and how refs call fouls against them. This, to a degree, helps take out the variable of how a person grew up learning basketball. Because the fact of the matter is, different fundamentals are preached for basketball in different parts of the world. The academics missed that.