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?


I know this is an econ blog, so incentives are the name of the game, but it seems we are seriously overemphasizing them at the expense of cultural influences (I'll call them cultural incentives to keep it equivalent). It's no more expensive to play baseball than basketball if you're poor--all you need is a ball and a stick. The best example is the Dominican Republic, which has produced large #'s of major-league baseball players, while having some of the worst poverty in the western hemisphere.

Cultural incentives are--dare I say it?--at least as powerful as economic one's, and the decline in interest and participation of young black Americans in baseball seems to be an excellent example of this.


Baseball players can be of any race!!



the team with the greater share of playing time by black players during those 13 years won 48.6 percent of games — a difference of about two victories in an 82-game season.

"Basically, it suggests that if you spray-painted one of your starters white, you'd win a few more games,” Mr. Wolfers said.

I have no data to back this up, so this is just an observation. Teams who are winning in a blow out game always get their benchwarmers some minutes at the end of the game. Maybe a greater percentage of the benchwarmers are white, so teams who are already winning are more likely to have more minutes played by white guys. Maybe it's not that the teams that are more white win more often, but maybe the white guys are playing because they're winning. Just a thought.


I have no data to back this up, so this is just an observation. Teams who are winning in a blow out game always get their benchwarmers some minutes at the end of the game. Maybe a greater percentage of the benchwarmers are white, so teams who are already winning are more likely to have more minutes played by white guys.

But then, teams that are losing in a blowout also are likely to give their benchwarmers more playing time at the end. The never-officially-acknowledged-but-everyone-knows-it-exists phenomenon of "tanking" also plays a factor.


my immediate thought is: in Europe, the white atheletes don't have to compete with as many black atheletes as in this country. Also, to become an NBA star is too slim a probablity that white people don't bother to pursue, because they have better access to be successful in other fields than black kids.
look at Duke University men's basketball team. it's like the whitest team of all NCAA teams. it's great college basketball team, but how many big NBA stars did it produce? Not that many. why? i think those kids are from wealthier family and playing basketball or becoming a NBA star is not their only purpose to going to Duke. There are many more doors open for their future.


I was incredulous that someone posted above "I don't now if black people are poorer than white people in this country". Last I recall, the white:black net worth ratio had jumped in the first four years of the Bush administration from 10:1 to something like 12.5:1 . That's huge. How can a wealth gap that big not be immediately obvious even to a casual observer? I remember rading that half the homeless people in America are black, or something like that. It looks a lot higher than half on the streets of Manhattan, that's for sure.


Also, it is important to note that the white foreign element is not as prominent in the NBA as David Stern wants people to believe. Steve Nash went to an American College. Dirk Nowitzki is a freak of nature. Other than these two the white foreign influence is limited to some role players (with a possible exception of Manu Ginobli). If you exclude big men, there really aren't that many white foreign players that produce significantly.

Why exclude big men? Because that trend is easier to explain. Forwards and centers in foreign countries are taught the same skills as guards. Whereas, in the U.S. most big men used to be taught to just be a big plodding force in the lane. The versatility offered by having a big guy that can shoot, dribble, and pass makes tall foreign players more valuable. This has already begun to shift as you can see American forwards and centers are becoming more dynamic every year.



Professional basketball and football both require ridiculous levels of athleticism. Black people are simply more athletic than white people are. Sure, there are exceptions (Larry Bird, Nash, etc) but overall blacks are more athletic. Blame all the socioeconomic factors you want, but what it really boils down to is black people are more athletic.

desert rose

Suppose there really is a statistically significant difference. There are at least two independent variables: the behavior of the referees, and the behavior of the players. Why would you assume that the behavior of the referees is responsible for the difference? (Because -- the assumption confirms a bias on the part of the authors.) Booo.



All "real" professional sports (hockey, soccer, tennis, lacrosse, baseball, etc.) require a high level of athleticism. Black people's supposed superior physical gifts can't explain why they are overrepresented in basketball and football while (at least with respect to American black athletes) being virtually absent in the sports I mentioned above.

This is clearly a matter of culture/support systems. It even affects which particular positions players of different racial backgrounds will pursue. Well into the 1990s, black QBs were encouraged to play other positions, while athletic white players were (and still are) discouraged from playing WR, RB, corner, etc.


There's something to the geography/urban setting argument in #15

My brother is an NAIA college basketball coach and he recruits a disproportionate number of players from inner cities. He'll tell you that's where so much of the skill is because from sun-up to sun-down there's a game to be had, and with the winners keeping the court - the best players get to play the most.


Any talented athlete has a number of sports to choose from that could suit their skills and temperament. There is still widespread "us versus them" thinking in the US between black and white people. So white talented people tend to steer away from a game with many blacks (and, I suspect, vice versa). Self-segregation, in other words.



I don't have a lot of time to write a full response right now, but check out this article

Here's a quote by OJ Simpson
"We are built a little differently, built for speed; skinny calves, long legs, high asses are all characteristics of blacks. That's why blacks wear long socks. We have skinny calves, and short socks won't stay up. I'll argue with any doctor that physically we're geared to speed, and most sports have something to do with speed."



I don't have enough time to write a full response right now but check out this article.

Heres an OJ Simpson quote
"We are built a little differently, built for speed-skinny calves, long legs, high asses are all characteristics of blacks... I'll argue with any doctor that physically we're geared to speed, and most sports have something to do with speed."


My take: Economic incentive and the distribution of the height required.

The latter first: height. Wikipedia ( lists the median height as 5'9.4" in the USA. Lets use some rough Maths and say that if there are 500 men, fully grown, at a school, ~15% are over 6'. Of those 75 men, the number likely to be tall enough to play inside at the NAB level, 6'9", is small to non-existent. That forces boys who ideally will play different roles on the next level to probably play inside.

That means the skills needed to advance (outside shooting, dribbling, passing, perimeter defence) are not the focus of their development, but power skills (rebounding, posting up, inside defence) are.

This is most concerning not for the 6'3" boys, whose move outside at teh NCAA level, but those "tweeners" who, at 6'5" or 6'6", are just tall enough to paly inside in College. Such players don't get any of the training they will need professionally, and have the toughest time transitioning.

Example: a 6'3" Hersey Hawkins, whose best chance at an NBA career lay as an off guard as an outside, and preferably as a point guard. What position did he play in College? Center (yes, CENTER!!!!)

This also ties into the second pointz; incentive. In Europe, players are bought and sold from a young age. Clubs derive revenue not from today, as in teh case of colleges and High Schools, but tomorrow, either in wins or a sale.

In practical terms, for a 15 year old in a junior European program, the outcome desired is to not to, as in America, win a High Schoo, State Championship or eventully an NCAA tournament, but to one day produce a Toni Kukoc who will either help to win a title, or can be sold to a bigger European club.

Compouding this is that the teams with the best resources and the best coaches in America, NBA teams, have no incentive for direct input at lower levels, and lower level coaches have goals that are the opposite of the players they coach (short term wins versus long term skillset). Just as there is no incentive for the Phoenix Suns to care how a 15 year old develops, because even if they helped him improve, with a draft, the chances of them getting the player are small, so too college coaches are paid not to sen players to the NBA, but to win conferences and NCAA games.

I would wager that, when income is tied not to winning at the current level but player development (to sell or win tomorrow), significant resources will be spent preparing players for the next. That means that coaching, and good, professional quality coaching, is geared towards long term player goals, not short term team victories.

Now, the question becomes, how does this relate to race? Surely, it effects all races equally. I argue it won't, because what teh NBA inevitably spend their player money instead of player DEVELOPMENT as Euorpean teams do, NBA teams spend money on player SCOUTING.

Scouting is the process of measuring the POTENTIAL of an athelete, and potential comes down to, essentially, one thing: athleticism. So whilst the better training of European athletes and their resulting odd skill sets (7' jump shooting power forward MVP anyone?) can overcome their lesser athleticism when compared to black athletes, American whites, who have been trained to win TODAY, do not have the same advantage.

This could all be baloney, but one potential way to test the hypothesis would be to look at the careers of players that experienced late growth spurts. I would wager that American players that grew from a Guard height (5'8"-6'1") to a forward height (6'7"-6'10") late in either High School or early in College, and therefore have a guard's skills in a forward's body, probably are disproportionately represented at higher levels.



NBA brings in more foreign players to boost its revenue oversees. it's no difference from a multinational corporation. NBA's popularity has declined since MJ's departure in the US. To compensate the lose, NBA is smart about bringing new fans and diversifies its revenue sources. the former soviet union contries are traditionally good in basketball; china is a brave new world. there's little black basketball players in those countries.


Some stats from a The Week Magazine… Issue 306/307

Canada, predictably, is cluttered with hockey players, but significant concentrations also pop up in Sweden, Russia, and the Czech Republic. In women's tennis, we see dispersal around Europe and the United States, then a concentrated burst in Moscow. A South Korean woman is more than six times more likely to be a professional golfer than an American woman.

Some scientist think it's Myelin... i think it's mentality.


Foreign players are learning basketball by executing the fundamentals. Many Amraican players are ESPNized and want to be on a highlight film dunking the ball.

When is the last time you saw a player on ESPN highlight showing 10 - 15ft jump shots being made?

It's been no secret that many Russian and European Coaches have come to the United States for decades and attended camps taught by coaches who stress fundamentals of both Offense and Defense.

The tide is slowly turning back to a game of Fundamentals and American Kids best wake up or you will see a continued influx of Non-American Players in the NBA.

Look at Baseball, Hispanic Ball players learn the game like Americans kids used to play in the 50s and 60s and that is getting out and playing ball all day honing their skills and leaving their parents at home so they don't ruin the game.


There is a bit of selection bias. Arguably both white and black people view black people as athletes first, and often over-estimate a person's ability, especially at younger ages, simply due to race. I have seen it many times. A white basketball player has to show much more on the court to beat out a comparable black player that "looks" full of potential, especially if the black guy is muscular and built. Thus, in the USA white players are weeded out inefficiently, unlike in other countries.


I'm a little late here but I was just thinking that Steele and Aronson's concept of stereotype threat could be at play here. White guys could play worse in the US under the stereotype that white guys can't play basketball.