Empirical Legal Studies Hits the NBA
Last week brought yet another demonstration of the range and relevance of socio-legal discourse to the practice of everyday life in the United States at the end of the 20th century. The New York Times featured a sports story on the front page of its May 2nd, 2007 edition. The article by Alan Schwartz touted a recent study by UPenn economist Justin Wolfers, and Joseph Price, a Cornell graduate students, demonstrating an apparent racial bias in fouls called by NBA refs. In brief, referees appeared to be tougher on players of other than their own race (the bias was especially strong by white officials against black players). The resulting media battle was just as revealing. Rather than dismiss the study as a irrelevant or suggest that statistical analysis as incapable of capturing the complexity of basketball, the NBA fired back with its own version of a statistical study, insisting, in the words of NBA commissioner David Stern that: “We think our cut at the data is more powerful, more robust, and demonstrates that there is no bias...”
The controversy continued (notwithstanding the minor distraction of NBA play-offs). Three statistical experts had been consulted by the New York Times and preferred the Wolfers-Price study. The article on the NYT website, however, now reveals that one of those experts had been Wolfer's dissertation adviser (and we know they are never critical of their students).