The NBA eliminated referees’ racial bias – can society learn from it? Check out ‘Against the Rules with Michael Lewis’

Sports September 1, 2021
Against the Rules with Michael Lewis podcast art
Listen to ‘Against the Rules with Michael Lewis’

Referees over the past decades have faced increasing challenges: from angry players to outraged fans who can now replay over and over and over the calls they got wrong. The introduction of the instant replay into the NBA had many concerned, but it has improved their calls and led to “more fair” games.

But what is fairness? And why do only certain people get to determine it? Per the suggestion of Terry O’Reilly, creator of “We Regret to Inform You: The Rejection Podcast,” we are covering podcast “Against the Rules with Michael Lewis” as it dives headfirst into those questions – and first up are referees.

Everyone loves to hate the ref. They’re always getting in the way, targeting our team, holding some vendetta against our favorite player. At all levels in sports, referees feel the rage. From little leagues to the NBA, there will always be pushback from players, fans and coaches about any call.

As television technology has improved, it has given viewers a new perspective – a better perspective even – than the referees themselves. And that is not okay. Because of this rapid advancement that puts fans on the court, giving them multiple shots of the most recent play, referees also needed to step up their game. So “Against the Rules” headed to Secaucas, New Jersey to see the NBA’s state-of-the-art Replay Center. Inside, there are 94 high definition monitors, overseen by 15 NBA Referees who consult with the NBA Replay Center based on 15 instant replay triggers. It’s intense, to say the least. With just a twirl of their fingers, referees on the court can signal to the NBA Replay Center to get to work.

While some people argue that instant replay has ruined the flow of the game, it has vastly improved the accuracy of calls on the court, gridiron, and diamond. Lewis does not just stop there, though, because instant replay is not the only way referees do their job fairly.

“NBA refs have achieved what police forces can only dream of: race blindness.”

In 2007, The New York Times headlined a report on the NBA’s racial bias in foul calls. Justin Wolfers and Joseph Price reported that during the seasons from 1991-2004, white referees called fouls at a greater rate against Black players than white players. The report enraged the NBA commissioner, who countered that the NBA had done their own study and saw no bias.

Wolfers and Price revisited the issue, looking at data from 2007-2010, after the publication of their paper. And they found something surprising: the bias had completely disappeared. Lewis explains what is written in this Washington Post article about their findings, which the NBA first denied happened at all, before accepting that the data had indeed changed for the better. As Price said, “Large-scale public focus on a specific type of racial bias in a specific group can make it go away.”

“Against the Rules with Michael Lewis” is a fascinating look at the rules and the people who determine them. Referees, judges, government, The New York Stock Exchange. The people who are leveling the playing field and the impact they can make. From Pushkin Industries, “Against the Rules with Michael Lewis” should definitely be a part of your next binge-listen.

Listen to ‘Against the Rules with Michael Lewis’

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