Perhaps this is progress. Perhaps the detection of racial bias in NBA officiating through multivariable regression analysis is a sign that it's not so obvious and overt anymore.
When you have to sift through 13 years of statistical data to identify a race-based problem in the assessment of personal fouls, it suggests that discrimination grows ever more subtle in the games we play. It suggests a shift from the conscious to the subconscious; from the ignorant to the inadvertent; from Selma toward Utopia.
A study released Tuesday by Wharton professor Justin Wolfers and Cornell graduate student Joseph Price alleges "appreciable differences" in the outcome of NBA games based on the racial composition of the respective teams and refereeing crews.
Inasmuch as any discrimination by officials is odious and any of their calls are potentially decisive, anything that impugns their integrity or impartiality is troubling. Yet since this study was inhibited by the inability to assign individual calls to individual referees, some of its data is inconclusive. None of its conclusions rises to the level of scandal or, realistically, even surprise.
Box scores do not identify which ref blew what whistle, and the NBA has declined to share the proprietary data that could further illuminate the issue. While the NBA's resistance to transparency undercuts Commissioner David Stern's claim that the league's in-house study shows "no bias," the numbers presented by Wolfers and Price should elicit more curiosity than controversy.
Though the study shows that black players are charged with fewer fouls than white players per 48 minutes, 4.33 to 4.97, Wolfers and Price found that black players receive "around 0.12-0.21 more fouls per 48 minutes played (relative to white players) when the number of white referees officiating a game increases from zero to three."
This discrepancy certainly qualifies as a concern, but it was not the authors' aim to provoke outrage. These guys are academics, after all, not talk show hosts.
"People have misread our paper to say we're calling someone somewhere a racist," Wolfers said Wednesday night in a telephone interview. "The paper's being painted as making points we weren't making.
"We are explicitly of the view that we think, and we don't know for sure, that this is an implicit bias. ... There still exist barriers. We want to understand where they come from. The NBA is a really interesting laboratory because it's the last place you would expect to find this."
Historically the most progressive of the major sports leagues, and currently comprised of roughly 80 percent black players, the NBA is naturally sensitive to the slightest suggestion of bias. Hypersensitive, perhaps. Like the block/charge call, the difference between an arithmetical anomaly and true statistical significance is sometimes a matter of interpretation.
"We obviously discuss officiating and our feelings toward it," Utah Jazz guard Derek Fisher, president of the NBA Players Association, told The Associated Press. "But I don't ever recall it being a racially motivated type of conversation where we felt like there were certain guys that had it out for me or him or whoever just because of the color of our skin.
"I don't know that I've ever felt there was a racial component to officiating."
Wolfers would argue that his hypothesis is narrower than that; that he's searching for subconscious influences in split-second decisions and not broad patterns of prejudice; and that his findings are consistent with race-related studies in high-pressure police work.
If you find the study that detects no racial bias, you should probably assume its authors haven't studied very hard.
"There's bias on the basketball court," Wolfers told The New York Times, "but less than when you're trying to hail a cab at midnight."
Sixty years since Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, professional sports come as close to color-blindness as any segment of American society. Though baseball's current effort to attract more black athletes may be driven as much by marketing as morality, it carries the implicit acknowledgment that here is a talent pool worth tapping.
Here, too, is progress. Though Robinson broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the major leagues were not fully integrated until Pumpsie Green joined the Boston Red Sox on July 21, 1959. The National Football League's Washington Redskins were all-white until 1962.
Not until 1970, four years after his memorable monochromatic defeat against Texas Western, did Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp recruit the school's first black player. That same year, Alabama's Bear Bryant brought John McKay's USC Trojans to Birmingham, ostensibly to show the locals how much apartheid was hurting his football program.
Less than 40 years later, the landscape is decidedly different. Among the beauties of modern athletics is its meritocracy. If you can't hit, your family connections can't help you. If you can't catch, your net worth means nothing. If you can run fast enough, your race is the 100 meters, skin color notwithstanding.
Though Martin Luther King Jr. decried the "tranquilizing drug of gradualism," there is no comparison between the hurdles confronting today's black athletes and those faced by their forebears. Racial prejudice will always be with us, but instead of George Wallace spouting division with impunity, we have Don Imus spouting derision and getting silenced.
This is progress. But it is not paradise.
"I'm entertained no matter how many fouls there are," Justin Wolfers said. "But by jingo, if the most professional evaluators in our society are making these mistakes, what about the others?"