BYU Today

NBA Whistles Aren’t Colorblind-and Neither Are You


NBA refs are making racially biased calls, according to a study by BYU economics professor Joseph P. Price (BA ’03) that sent a shockwave through the NBA. But he says the bias is unintentional.

The research claims that officials call 4 percent fewer fouls on players of their same race due to “implicit bias,” subconscious associations that emerge when people have to make split-second decisions. They found that this bias occurs equally among NBA refs of all races. And it’s not limited to the race of players: a coach’s race can also affect how refs call games. While only 4 percent of calls are impacted, the study reports that racially biased calls “affect the outcome of an appreciable number of games.”

Price and University of Pennsylvania coauthor Justin Wolfers chose to follow the NBA because it is a place where high-stakes, snap decisions are made repeatedly, and the outcome of each decision is recorded. When the study was first released in 2007, the NBA and several NBA players reacted with hostility. Yet the study held up to peer review and was published in the prestigious Quarterly Journal of Economics in December 2010.

Though the study focused on the NBA, Price says they were looking at something much bigger than basketball. He argues that implicit bias also happens in courts of law, classrooms, and workplaces, and he says studying implicit bias in data-rich settings, like the NBA, could help people recognize it in settings where it’s harder to see. In the future, he plans to study implicit bias in elections.

What’s the takeaway for the everyday person trying to eliminate implicit bias? “Take a close look at your own biases,” says Price. “Perhaps the surprising [negative] reception of the study can teach something as well. Being willing to hear criticism can be a necessary step for change.”

Want to test your own split-second biases? Professor Joseph Price recommends taking the Implicit Association Test at implicit.harvard.edu.

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