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Referees discriminate by race in splitsecond decisions

October 31st, 2007 by Peter Andersen · 2 Comments

Photo by: Auðunn Licensed under CC
Photo by Auðunn. Licensed under CC

The colour of your skin can cause you to lose a game of sport.

That has been shown to be the case in two recent studies conducted by two teams of American economists. They focused on the split second decisions of referees and umpires and found, that a basketball referee is more likely to call a foul when the player is of different race than himself. Likewise, baseball umpires a more prone to call a strike when the pitcher is not of his own ethnicity.

And there is reason to believe that this race bias problem is to be found in for example European sports, according to one of the scientists behind the baseball study.

- I would be happy to bet that the same thing exists elsewhere. There is no reason to assume that Americans are more racist than other nations, says David Hamermesh, who is professor of economics at the University of Texas.

Professor Hamermash and his team analyzed the calls on 2.1 million pitches thrown at Major League Baseball games in the 2004, 2005 and 2006 seasons. After eliminating all other outside factors the research team found evidence of same-race bias among the umpires. In short, they found that the highest percentage of strikes were called when the home-plate umpire and the pitcher both were white, and the lowest percentage were called when the umpire was white and the pitcher black.

Exactly the same phenomenon was debated in American basketball in June this year, when Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor of Business and Public Policy at University of Pennsylvania, conducted a study along with Joseph Price of The Department of Economics at Cornell University.

The study showed same race bias among referees between 1991 and 2004. In fact basketball players can earn up to four percent more fouls and score up to two and a half percent less points when there are three referees of different race instead of three referees of the same race as the player. Large enough to affect the teams chance of winning, the study concludes.

Nobody knows if referees – perhaps subconsciosly – do the same in other other parts of the world. Professor Hamermesh has not come across any research that points to that.

- But that just means others haven’t examined this issue yet, the professor states.

What do you think? Is this academic nonsense or do you think it is a significant problem in other sports, for instance European Football? And could new digital devices helping the referees perhaps be the answer?

Tags: Racism in sport

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