Refereeing the Referees: Wolfers featured on podcast about fairness in basketball

April 8, 2019

Just in time for the NCAA championship game concluding March Madness, a new podcast investigating the idea of fairness titled Against the Rules with Michael Lewis gives insight into changing referee standards. In the first episode released April 2, 2019, titled “Ref, You Suck!,” Lewis talks to Professor Justin Wolfers about his past academic research that analyzed referee trends and how they speak to potential prejudices. 

Wolfers and his colleagues looked at data of NBA referees, scanning for signs of racial bias. “Look, I don’t really like writing papers about sports—I’d rather write them about the economy,” said Justin Wolfers, “but the thing is, this is a domain where the NBA referees have tremendous incentives not to make the wrong call.” The study examined in-group bias. “So, if a predominantly black team is playing and the refereeing crew is predominantly white, are there more fouls called against them than on nights when the same team is playing with a predominantly black refereeing crew, and it turns out the answer is yes,” Wolfers explained.

The episode explores this trend of hyper-scrutiny, which has boomed since the advent of real-time playback technology. “Every error they make is tracked, those errors determine whether they get more games, those games determine how much they get paid. This is arguably the most analyzed workforce in the country,” Wolfers continued. 

The research landed on the cover of The New York Times, which incited both retaliation and reform within the NBA referee system. After the NBA made changes, Wolfers revisited the research concept, finding now that the data “seems to suggest that that form of racial bias has gone away.” 

Listen to the full podcast here. Wolfers interview was also run by This American Life on April 5, 2019, episode titled “No Fair!” 

Justin Wolfers is a professor of public policy and economics. He also serves as a member of the Congressional Budget Office Panel of Economic Advisers. Wolfers' research interests include labor economics, macroeconomics, political economy, social policy, law and economics, and behavioral economics.