The NBA Referees Story: Turnovers and Steals

May 5, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
Well, I was right about at least one thing in my previous post about NBA referees: the story was heavily blogged. For the next two days it was #1 on the Times website list of most blogged articles. Bloggers on race (, sports and all angles on sports (thesportslawprofessor), and especially economists. The authors of the original article are economists. Levitt and Dubner of Freakonomics fame blogged it in reaction to popular demand: “Never in the history of the Freakonomics blog have so many people sent e-mails requesting comment on a newspaper article.”

But wait a minute. Excuse me. Why is this economics? This is a multiple-regression analysis of the effects of race on perception. Sociologists and social psychologists have been doing this sort of thing for over half a century. In college we read about Gordon Allport’s classic study, the one that resembled the parlor game
telephone.” One person views a picture, describes it as fully as possible to another, who in turn describes it to another and so on down the line. In the original picture, there is a black man (in 1945 he was probably a Negro) and a white man. The white man is holding a knife. Somewhere in the chain of telling and retelling, the knife changes hands.

The idea of the NBA study is that white refs perceive fouls differently depending on the race of the player. The effects were so tiny as to be invisible except under the microscope of a very large sample size. But regardless of the results, this is not economics. Money has absolutely nothing to do with it.

This is merely the latest incursion of economics into sociology
s court. Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt with Stephen Dubner, was a huge hit, a best-seller. But the topics in it often have little or nothing to do with economics: match-fixing in sumo tournaments; the popularity of baby names as a function of social class; the effect of black first names (e.g., DeShawn) on social mobility; the effect of Roe v. Wade on crime rates. Sounds like sociology to me.

Even sociologist Kieran Healy, in his Sociological Forum
review of Freakonomics, seems to concede the turf to the economists. Sociologists should pay attention to the substance of what he [Levitt] is doing, and then ask whether we think we have something better to offer in response. But the substance of what he is doing is sociology. And the same goes for the NBA study. I wonder if that unpublished paper would have gotten as much ink and bandwidth if the authors were sociologists and it had been submitted to a sociology journal.
Six years ago, Joel Best surveyed the history of sociological ideas that eventually became popular or practical: social work, public opinion polling, criminology, etc. It seems as though every time sociologists develop something that looks like it could turn a buck, we get rid of it. The title of Bests article was Giving It Away.” (American Sociologist, Spring 2001. Sorry, no link; it's not on line.)

But the NBA ref research and the kinds of studies in Freakonomics and elsewhere seem less like a clumsy turnover— dribbling the ball off our foot and into the other team’s hands— than an outright steal by the economist team. A take-away rather than a give-away.

I don’t think Best is asking for the refs to blow the whistle. But maybe more sociologists can get back on the floor and into the game.

No comments: