Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

White men can’t jump, but maybe they don’t have to

Posted by digglahhh on 5 May 2007

The New York times reports on a paper written by Justin Wolfers and Joseph Price, a University of Pennsylvania assistant professor and a Cornell graduate student, respectively. The paper has yet to be published or peer reviewed. It claims that, in the NBA, white referees call fouls on black players at a higher rate than they do against white players. It also notes a reciprocal but weaker relationship between black officials and white players. The study covers thirteen seasons worth of data and attempts to control for an inordinate amount of variables, including just about all of the ones that first popped into my head when thinking about potential problems with such a study.

The idea of implicit racial associations playing a role in how we view sports and athletes is not only not new to me, I’ve been arguing on this behalf for years. I was recently involved in not one, but two, on-line discussions started by fellows who believe that modern baseball players who wear baggy uniform pants and/or slightly tilted caps disrespect the game with their “sloppiness” and “unprofessional” appearance. Beyond the notion that “professionalism” is a social construct, I was struck by the historical ignorance these statements. (This was a forum for baseball junkies, after all.)

See, baseball heroes of yesteryear wore baggy pants and tilted hats. The Hall of Fame is full of them. Many of the actual plaques of old-time Hall of Famers even depict the player wearing a crooked hat. Oh yeah, old time ballplayers were white.

One of the members dryly noted, after a series of photos of old time players in baggy pants and cocked caps:

“You also have to remember that the players back then were white so it was okay. Nowadays minority athletes are doing it so it is bad.”

The concept of implicit racial association is simple; you are subconsciously conditioned to associate positive characteristics with light skin and negative characteristics with dark skin. This is not an indictment of the person who makes such an association as a racist; but simply a statement of race’s place in how we are conditioned to think. Still, in knee-jerk fashion, people categorically deny that race informs their decisions and opinions.

The NBA’s reaction to these allegations didn’t really surprise me. It claims no racial bias in its officiating, and it claims it has done its own studies to support their claim. Maybe the NBA is right, but their officials are social beings like the rest of us. To be sure, more than a few league officials and players deny the phenomenon, but a conscious denial of a subconscious relationship is just what you’d expect. Notably, two black coaches declined to comment.

A racial bias could have real implications in terms of game outcomes. Wolfers notes:

…for each additional black starter a team had, relative to its opponent, a team’s chance of winning would decline from a theoretical 50 percent to 49 percent and so on… 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 paint one of your starters white, you’d win a few more games.”

How’s that for spinning a stereotype on its head!

Assumptions about race’s relation to intelligence manifest themselves in all areas of sports, from hiring practices to sports journalism. The stereotype of black athletes being of substandard intelligence may (or may not) have subsided, but minorities certainly aren’t represented as executives and coaches in proportion to their representation on the field of play, in any sport. The bluntest of these assertions, like blacks not being smart enough to be quarterbacks seem to have subsided, however, new, more subtle standards have emerged to take their place.

Black quarterbacks are expected to be highly mobile; to be able to run with the ball as well as throw it. Byron Leftwich, QB of the Jacksonville Jaguars has been criticized for not being fast enough and for being too unwilling to run. Flat footed, pocket-passing white quarterbacks receive no such criticism. Speed and mobility are not seen as essential skills for white QBs.

Many of the implicit associations involving race and athletics are apparent in the way athletes’ attributes are described. Successful black athletes are often referred to as “athletic” and “naturally gifted,” while successful white athletes are often referred to as “hardworking” and “committed.” The hardworking white athlete hones his skills with hours of preparation and study, while the lazy, simian black athlete reaps the benefits of his natural strength, size and speed. — this is the unrefined version of the racist belief these linguistic tendencies are based on.

What does it even mean to call a player hard working or athletic in the context of preparing for and playing at the highest level of competition in the world? They’re all athletic and hard working – that’s kinda why they get paid millions to play these sports and we sit on the couch and marvel at them.

In baseball, smaller white players who run hard, hustle, and are willing to sacrifice their physical wellbeing for the good of the team are often called “gamers,” “grinders,” “lunch pail guys” or “blue collar guys.” Listen to what Kenny Williams (a rare, black) GM of the Chicago White Sox had to say about his lunch pail guys, on the occasion of signing Darin Erstad, this off season. Erstad is a career below-average player who had one fluke season in 2000 when he was incredibly productive and a key member of the World Series champion Angels.

Aaron Rowand gave us an edge two years ago,” general manager Kenny Williams said. “That grinder effect, if you will. We missed it last year. I’ve always thought that Aaron Rowand and Darin Erstad were the poster children for that style of play.”

Trust me, Aaron Rowand and Darin Erstad are not what World Series rings are made out of.

Minorities who play with passion and hustle are often called “electric,” “fiery” and referred to a “sparkplugs.” Sometimes, even two of those words at a time.

New York Mets related blog run amok with sentences like this:

Lastings Milledge– Look for the rookie phenom to bring a spark to the Mets with his fiery attitude and electric speed.

(In the interest of full disclosure, and shameless plugging, I would like to acknowledge that firejoemorgan.com has discussed these issues in the past, and my knowing that allowed me to steal several links they had to articles documenting this language. If you are into sports, language, and the breaking down of meaningless platitudes, you’ll love FJM.)

Socrates stated that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing. As research about the complexities of the human mind progresses, we begin to fathom the multiform processes of our minds, the various levels cognition, the pathways of associations implicit, conscious, sensory and so forth. The more intelligent among us understand that admitting that our own though processes are incomprehensibly complex is not a sign of inadequate intelligence. Contrarily, it displays the abilities to think in the abstract, set aside the ego, and to examine the self. These are all behaviors indicative of intellectual maturity.

Those who outright reject the notion that race has something to do with a foul in a basketball game, or one’s perception of what professionalism is, are guilty of two paradoxical offenses. They are guilty of displaying the hubris it takes for one to be so certain about the nature of elaborate cognitive and social processes that have puzzled some of our most prized minds. At the same time they are guilty of underestimating the depths of their own minds and their ability to process observations and draw connections beyond the most superficial levels.

The NBA, like the rest, of us needs to stop engaging in cognitive dissonance. We can’t continue to deny facets of our thoughts and behavior simply because we wish that they were not true. Instead, we must deconstruct and confront our opinions if we ever truly want to claim them as our own.

Race continues to play a huge part in our most mundane thoughts, it influences decisions we don’t believe it can, it shapes guesses we think are random. Perhaps the biggest reason why it continues to hold such power over our language and values is because we deny its ability to hold any at all.


13 Responses to “White men can’t jump, but maybe they don’t have to”

  1. Great post.

    I’m fascinated by the NBA foul study, not least because it reported such a small racial impact on calls. (They said a black player would get a foul call something like four percent more frequently than a white player.)

    Four percent is enough to add up to a lot over the course of a season, and one or two of those extra calls could well make the difference in a close game. But it’s a small enough number that it’d be pretty much impossible, I think, for any player or umpire to pick up on it without crunching the numbers.

    Big enough to affect the game, but small enough to make it essentially impossible to police. That’s an ugly combination.

  2. digglahhh said



    I have not seen the study so I’m hesitant to really tout it without critically reading its methodology, especially in how it decided to control for all the variables. However, one thing that really struck me as being a profound indication of legitimacy is that the study claims that the only element of the game that remains constant regardless of the racial make-up of the referees is free throw shooting – which is the only truly independent, individual activity in the game. This is, to me, an important (although “back door”) piece of evidence.

  3. Swanny said

    Yes, and the 1 or two white guys who start in the league (and probably even the 2 or three who see playing time in any given game) must gloat regularly over their good fortune.

    To me a more important study would be one that studies the average fouls of the home team vs. the visiting team. Of course, that’s not as sexy as a study that flings a charge of racism.

    25 of the league’s 59 officials are non-white. That’s 42%. If that number goes over 50% (which it probably will in the next 5 years) does it mean that black officials will be discriminating against white players to the point that they are penalizing teams for even having white players?

  4. Swanny, if you’d read as far as the third paragraph of the Times piece, you’d have found this:

    “[The study] found a corresponding bias in which black officials called fouls more frequently against white players, though that tendency was not as strong.”

  5. digglahhh said

    The one or two white guys who get playing time, Swanny?

    Conveniently dismissive, considering that whether they choose Nash or Dirk, this season will mark the third consecutive in which a white player was named MVP of the league…

  6. Swanny said

    I know, Diggie-Poo, I was asking if anyone was worried about what would happen in the near future when those black referees with the admitted smaller but still noticeable bias became the majority.

    The MVP Award is not selected by or named by the league, but rather voted on by sportswriters.

    Steve Nash, one of three white guys on the Suns. The only one to see more than 5 minutes a game.

    Dirk Nowitzki, again, one of three. Difference here is Croshere sees 11 mpg but poor Barrea’s another 5 minute a gamer.

    Also, during the 13 years the study covered, 26 teams advanced to the NBA Finals. Of the top eight players from each of those teams (208 players in all) only 25 were white. 12%. That racial bias was doing wonders for them boys wadn’t it?

  7. digglahhh said

    Well, we all know what the secret was to win championships from 93-02. You just have to have Robert Horry or Steve Kerr. Ten years in a row, a team with either Horry or Kerr won a ring. Why an ambitious GM didn’t just make it a priority to sing both of them is a mystery to me…

    But seriously, there have been more than a few white “impact players” or at least productive regulars in the league over that time. Off the top of my head:

    Dirk, Nash, Peja, Hinrich, Stockton, Gasol, Jayson Williams, Hornacek, Kirilenko, Kukoc, Smits, Divac, Kerr, Mullin, Ilgauskas, Brad Miller, Laettner, Okur, Brent Barry, Nocioni, Troy Murphy…

    Now, I know that the fact that I can name about twenty of so productive white players over the last dozen or so seasons kind of underscores your point. But, it is not as bad as you imply.

    I wonder what this study would be like if it limited the study to just black guys with cornrows…

  8. oldskychaos said

    Very thought provoking post. Was there any research in the differences of white and black referee decisions?

  9. digglahhh said

    Basically, according to the study, you are at a small, but real, disadvantage if you are of the opposite race of the official. That disadvantage is greater for black players against white referees, but it does exist the other way.

    I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “decisions?” Specifically, I’m unclear whether you are asking about their calls in relation to the race of the offending players or in relation to their own race.

    That would be an interesting study too. Are black or white officials more likely to call specific violations? Is there a carry-over from this professed white resentment of the playground style embraced by several superstars? Do white officials call violations like traveling or palming more often? I also do not recall the article mentioning anything regarding technical or flagrant fouls, those calls might carry the most implication and may be worthy of an in-depth look themselves.

  10. oldskychaos said

    Yes I think it would be interesting too. What I wondered was whether officials would be more sympathetic to those of the same race. But that would be an incredibly difficult study to do IMO. I think tho, that if a white offical was seen (or believed) to be unjustly harsh on a black/different race player that might create a knee-jerk reaction not to be harsh on white players but to actually be more lenient on those of the same race of which they thought to have undergone harsh treatment. If you see what I mean (difficult to explain).

  11. digglahhh said

    Right, an overcompensation of sorts, I see what you are saying

    Personally, I think the overcompensation is an element to the “special treatment” afforded to superstars. Players benefit from their reputations. Barry Bonds, or historically, Ted Williams are credited with having such a keen batter’s eye that when they take a close pitch that did not fool them, perhaps the umpire, who wants to call a strike, second guesses(subconsciously)whether Williams would have taken that pitch if it was a strike. There’s an element of overcompensation for that players skill. You can make the same argument for Greg Maddux’s ability to expand the strike zone in his prime, or fouls being called to “explain” why Kobe missed that jumper.

    By trying to be “fair” to black players, you may end up being overly lenient – to a greater degree than you were harsh, initially. This would be a natural manifestation of trying to address a subtle, subconscious bias by pre-determined conscious modification. Changing these implicit biases that pervade society is a long process. Right now, collectively, we are still in the admitting the problem stage of the recovery process.

  12. oldskychaos said

    I truly think that officials have a difficult job and this post has brought it even more into the light. Whats difficult is in that split second an official has to make a decision – what he may think of in that split second may not only be what his position is (his own minds decision) but he may think how others will perceive his decision – will someone think it is too harsh or too lenient. White officials may fear being too lenient on a black player and therefore increase the severity of the penalty – which in turn could be considered too harsh. It’s an extremely difficult situation and I thank you for bringing it up. In a time where we would like to resolve racism its important to look at the subconcious mind in its decision making and whether it could be swayed by unknowing subconscious prejudice.

  13. aron said

    White man can’t jump?????? have you never see a high jump match STUPID AMERICANS
    Whites win basketball remember world champion spain remember USA-Greece
    adventage blacks have in basketball is longer arms but dunking is only one point

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