Since We’re on the Subject of Race and the N.B.A. …

Levitt blogged a few minutes ago about today’s N.Y. Times piece by Alan Schwarz about possible racial bias among N.B.A. referees. The piece is based on a draft academic paper by Joseph Price and Justin Wolfers. I have two quick things to add to Levitt’s post, and then a separate but related question.

1. Never in the history of the Freakonomics blog have so many people sent e-mails requesting comment on a newspaper article; I guess the combination of bias, sport, and clever measurement is an irresistible combination.

2. I think it is an interesting sign of the times that a theory postulated and tested by economists on race and sport makes the front page of the N.Y. Times. I, for one, am very pleased to see this.

And now for my question:

Considering the fact that there aren’t that many white players in the N.B.A. to start with, why is it that so many of them are not Americans? With the prominence of Steve Nash (Canadian), Dirk Nowitzki (German), and a steady flock of eastern Europeans, one gets to wondering why so few white Americans succeed in the N.B.A.

It isn’t like we don’t have a lot of white people in this country. I am guessing that if you totaled the population of all the countries that produce all the non-American N.B.A. whites, you wouldn’t surpass the white population of the U.S.

So … what’s happening?


Why is soccer so popular in third world countries? Because it is a cheap sport to play. All you need is a ball. I don't know if blacks are poorer than whites in this country, but if they are, playing basketball would seem to make sense because (i) all you need is a ball, and (ii) soccer is not well appreciated/respected in this country as an alternative. But that does not explain why football is such a popular sport among blacks (pads and helmets are expensive). Any thoughts?


Physique plays the most dominant role in any sport. It basically gives you a set of players who might do well at a sport.
People of west african origin are supposed to be great at athletics. But studies are never too conclusive.
There has been a reason why Asians were behind the rest of the world in athletics. Now China, are 'discovering' athletes and putting them through to training regimes which will get the best out of them.

But it is about the acceptance of a sport in society that decides who plays what.
Basketball has a recognition in the black society. Tiger woods is an exception, but Blacks will not look at golf as a great game. Its more of a white man game for the rich snobs. Even many 'real' men will prefer the more dirtier sports to golf. A game like cricket in Australia is not really given as much respect in the country as football or rugby inspite of the history and world dominance.
Many in Wales consider football to be less of a sport than rugby. And rugby will always command greater respect. It is not a 'wimp's game'
So acceptance plays the biggest role in the prominence of a sport.

But acceptance changes over time. Like football in England has over the decades. From a worker's game to something truly big. Money plays the biggest role in legitimizing a sport. Like in India, where sports was not really looked at as a great profession, elitist cricket won over the minds of the public, while other sports remained ignored.

Societal acceptance, economic incentives and infrastructure required.



Hypothesis: developing Black athletes tend to be poorer than equally talented white athletes, so black athletes may be drawn to sports where they can get the best scholarship.

Example: In a big time D1 university, which has a majority white population, the football (~80 scholarships) and basketball (~14 scholarships) will have mostly black players. The baseball team however (~11 scholarships, which can be split up) will be mostly white.


Options. White Americans have tons of options available, being a star in the NBA isn't the only shot at huge success.


You're wrong about population. There are a lot more white people in Russia, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Latvia, etc., than in the US.


I think white American children have more sports options to choose from with baseball and football being the obvious ones. And perhaps "choose" is the wrong word, maybe it's "steered to" by their parents.

Another reason, and a potentially controversial one at that, is perhaps white Americans are somehow at a genetic disadvantage to the tools you need be a great basketball player vs. black American kids (and maybe even Europeans? though that sounds pretty ridiculous even as I type it)

Additionally, I think the European white kids have not been "Sportcenter-ed" as American kids have been (black or white). It's quite obvious that they have taken more time to not only learn the fundamentals of the game, but to master them as well. Most American players, it seems, learn the fundamentals incidentally while concentrating more on mastering the "razzle dazzle" of the game. (dunks, no look passes, etc.)

Lastly, and this maybe for a different discussion all together, but perhaps a white athlete - lets say one with enough talent to be a professional but maybe not a star - has more career options off the court than a black American athlete. If anyone has watched this past NFL draft or NBA drafts, when a black athlete gets selected you get the sense that this was the ONLY option for them..its life or death. I'm not saying this is true but to them and their family it seems like the only way to break the cycle they might be in. (rent "Hoop Dreams" or "Through The Fire" for a better understanding)

So I guess it really goes back to, how can we better educate everyone, so that the options between white and black and get closer to even.

It's funny how everything leads back to education



I think what's really at the heart of this matter is that white Americans just aren't that great at basketball.

We've got hockey, right? Polo? Lacrosse? Any takers?


Do we have any data to back up the hypothesis that there are more non-American whites than American whites? Or what the percentage is?


I wouldn't know. The issue of "race" seems to make some feel 'stronger' in the odds, regardless of sport. Bibliography seems to be in need. Further analysis in the miss.

But hey, we cannot all be 'freakonomists'.



I think white American children have more sports options to choose from with baseball and football being the obvious ones.

Football really isn't obvious. Everyone thinks of the NBA as a black league but in fact the percentage of blacks in the NFL isn't far behind. If I recall correctly, the NFL is about 70% to 75% black, vs. the NBA's 80%, and if you exclude quaterbacks and o-linemen the percentages are almost the same.


Isnt it likely that the cause is a mix of factors. 1) Physical stature and the related genetics of white vs black Americans. 2) More options/less options for whites and blacks, respectively. 3)Cultural factors ie: scholarships(as mentioned above), number of blacks that play basketball, socioeconomics-its free to play in outdoor basketball courts, while other sports areas are more scarce or costly to use, and the preconceptions that may exist among blacks and whites.
And of course within the last point, it is hard to ignore that the possibility of racism exists among and between both blacks and whites.
As for the number of Europeans, are they really overrepresented compared to white Americans? If we include Russia, thats over 400 million people.


A few of the comments above have already addressed this in some way, but it bears repeating: could it be that the situation in other countries is irrelevant to the question? Assuming that the NBA selects the best players from all over the world, it is no surprise that the best players from other nations reflect the demographic makeup of those nations. Why then do the best players from the United States not reflect the U.S.'s demographic makeup? Let the hypothesizing begin.


Availability of role models may be a factor.

I don't have the reference handy but I recall reading once that among black Americans (or possibly a subpopulation of just aspiring basketball players), about one person in a thousand becomes an NBA player, but among white Americans, only one in 30,000 makes it to the NBA.

Most people will easily have 1,000 friends, relatives, neighbors, acquaintances and friends of friends.

A child growing up might be more likely to adopt a dream of playing in the NBA, and doing the things that it takes to make that happen, if they thought they had a reasonable chance to make it happen. A white child could easily have much different perceptions of those chances than a black shild.


Why are there so few African-American players in Major League Baseball? There are black players but most are Latino. The Red Sox, for example, often play a line-up that has only Coco Crisp as an African-American; Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and Julio Lugo are starters who are black and Latino. As you note, we can understand the influx of talented Latin players, but where are the talented African-American players, especially considering the league was full of such players only 30 years ago?

This is a slightly different question than the NBA one, since with the NBA you are seeing an influx of white players after a period in which - at least according to my perceptions - the league was even less white. If that's true, then the influx could represent the tapping of new talent sources that just so happen to be white and that this influx has nothing to do with American white basketball talent at all. While Estonia has a relatively small population, it is part of the European basketball league and that league draws from a basketball playing population which perhaps equals or exceeds that of the US. Why shouldn't they develop some players good enough to play in the only true basketball major league?

As to my question, the speculation is that African-Americans are less attracted to baseball. Huh? Wouldn't the immense salaries be a draw not a turn-off? The total number of baseball jobs at the major league level far exceeds the number of basketball jobs. There are plenty of African-American role models in baseball, from the greatest home run hitter to award-winning pitchers. And you don't have to be 6'5" or taller to be a baseball player - which means more African-Americans potentially qualify on physical characteristics alone. You don't even need to be in absolute 100% aerobic condition to play baseball. So why?



I think it may be related to the same effect mentioned in the Freakonomics book, how the distribution of athletes over-represents those born earlier in the year. If I recall correctly, that was attributed to them being favored and encouraged more from when they are young due to their relative physical advantages.

At least at the elementary/junior high schools I went to, there was a common stereotype that blacks were simply better at basketball. Regardless of whether it was right or wrong, it was pervasive. And perhaps this led to a similar effect for non-blacks as with athletes born later in the year.

In other countries, there aren't enough blacks for this to have an effect. I would expect that in those countries, the distribution of elite basketball players is over-represented by those born earlier in the year. Whereas here, both basketball players who are not black and those born later in the year are less represented.

Or maybe that's just begging the question, since I'm saying in this country whites are less likely to succeed in the NBA because they're less likely to be favored as youth.

I also agree that culture plays at least a small role. I think basketball is more highly valued in African-American culture, and that (only) partly explains why the NBA is dominated by African-Americans. In California, high school varsity badminton teams are dominated by Asians. Why don't white badminton athletes do better? Cultural interest has at least a little bit to do with it.



I agree w/ Rodman that a black baller knows he can take any white guy- but I don't think white US ballers are analogous to the overseas picks- the foreign white players are the best players in their country, while the US players are more average talents
jonathank- surely the answer is socioeconomic- poor kids (disproportionately black) can play a pickup game with a ball and a crate, but don't have the start up capital for ball/bat/glove/windowless turf


I think this is one of those situations where there isn't just one answer. A number of factors apply here. Of course they are all interrelated.

With sports, decisions are always made early and for varying reasons. Kids pick which sports to play before they have any idea that they can get scholarships. So what is going on? I think one thing that used to be true of basketball was that a number of athletes were coming out of places like NYC. Here, kids would see basketball played in playground's from a young age. Good athletes would be able to play against guys twice their age and would get better and smarter by default. My brother and I are relatively the same body type, and my brother plays college basketball. What is the difference? Growing up, my brother had to play against me, a bigger stronger player. So he learned and developed at a different level.

Back in the day, white players that were not big men were traditionally good shooters? Why is this? Because they come from the mid-west. Where they grew up, their primary relationship to basketball was shooting on their hoop alone. Because of this the developed in a different way.

As this type of thing happened back in the day, and image was created. White American athletes might have been conditioned to thing that basketball was not their game. Furthermore, coaches began to believe the same things. The ability to recognize skill and talent is not very fine tuned. When players have similar numbers, coaches probably tend to go based on their assumptions.

My brother averaged close to 30 points a game in a tough conference in highschool. However, he was looked over at scholarship time in favor of similar players who were black. Were they more athletic? Not really. My brother frequently dunked in traffic during highschool games. So what was the difference? Admittedly, my brother had shorter arms and hands than some of his black counterparts. This might be important, but I really doubt that that was a reasonable consideration considering he had proven he was just as capable on the court.

So, with coaches tended to assume black players are better, and with other sports being available for white athletes, I assume that this has had some effect. Most likely this idea that white players are getting overlooked (whether true or not) is being passed on to kids through their parents. This pressure manifests itself in the push to play a different sport.

Also, involved in this are role models, as mentioned earlier. I am sure that white kids can have black role models. I just speculate that the opposite is the trend.

Someone should do a study on this. I think it would be interesting to look at the data on the distribution of white and black players over time and where they most frequently grew up. I assume that geography will play a large role in how basketball stars are made.



If you look a little closer at where the NBA players actually come from, I think you'll see that , with the exception of Yao, most of the foreign-born *white* players come from Eastern Europe or Argentina. Although the UK and France together are more than 50% of the US's white population, I can think of no *white* players from those countries. And yet tiny Lithuania has multiple players in the NBA. With just this quick glance at the numbers, I'm inclined to agree with dchai - it's a cultural thing - in Eastern Europe especially, tall white kids are encouraged to play basketball - elsewhere - not so much.
If it was strictly a height thing - we would expect to see more Dutch than other countries as statistically the Dutch are the tallest people in the world.


Baseball is not the only sport that's seen a decline in the number of African-American blacks. The heavier weight divisions in boxing used to be mainly black, but recently have had a big influx of Russians and Eastern Europeans. And the number of black golfers on the PGA tour over the past 25 years has dropped from around five to either one or zero, depending on how you classify Tiger Woods.


One possibility is that the "make or break" point for a basketball player in the U.S. occurs very early on in a player's career. If you're not flagged as having star potential by the time you're in 8th grade, you'll have trouble joining the year-round traveling teams, getting into the prestigious summer camps, etc., two critical factors for a player's continued development.

The default method for selecting young players for these teams is raw athletic ability, i.e. speed, jumping ability, quickness. Skills critical for long term success -- shooting, passing, court awareness -- can be taught, as long as the "tools" are there. In general, I would guess the white kids in the U.S. get passed over at a young age because, on average, they lack the raw athleticism of their black friends. This might be less of an issue in foreign countries. A smaller percentage of their future NBA stars are eliminated on the basis of too little athleticism at a young age.