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Maybe Hudson Got It Right

Posted by: John Bonnes Updated: April 14, 2010 - 11:09 PM

"We both know what it is. You’ll get it right. You’ll figure it out. I’m not gonna say it because then I’ll be in [trouble].”
- Orlando Hudson
 
Give the media some credit. We got it right. We figured it out. And whether Orlando Hudson said the word "racism" or not, he's in trouble. But not for the reason he should be.
 
The problem is not that he raised this issue. When Orlando Hudson hinted that Jermaine Dye and Gary Sheffield couldn’t get a job in part because of the color of their skin, he couldn’t have timed his comment much better. This week, and today of all days, the issue should be raised. Today Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day, the day that Jackie Robinson first broke the color barrier. This is exactly the day and the week that we SHOULD cut some slack to those willing to take on the risks inherent in talking about race biases.
 
No, the problem is that Hudson didn't talk enough. By only hinting at the argument, he left it for us to interpret his thoughts. It also allowed us to construct straw dogs, easily torn to pieces. Do we really need media heads to bravely declare that there isn't some conspiracy in the higher offices in major league baseball? Is that what we really think was being suggested?
 
I'll give the nine-year veteran a little more credit than that. 
 
One doesn't need a conspiracy to be affected by racism, and we have ample proof of that. The most recent sports-related proof is a study three years ago which was wildly misrepresented because of when it was reported. In 2007, Joseph Price of Cornell University & Justin Wolfers from University of Pennsylvania conducted a study on racial discrimination among NBA referees. Using game data they examined statistically whether teams of referees who were predominantly one race called more fouls on players of the opposing race. They did.
 
“Against these baselines, we find systematic evidence of an own-race bias. Players earn up to 4 percent fewer fouls or score up to 2½ percent more points when they are the recipients of a positive own-race bias, rather than a negative opposite-race effect.” (link)
 
The study was publicized during the same time period as the Tim Donaghy scandal, and so the coverage generally followed the same tack as the headline from this CBS News story: Study On Race Calls Foul On NBA Referees. The NBA scrambled to do damage control and there was lots of debate, but the main point was missed. The point of the study wasn't to prove that NBA refs were racist. It was to demonstrate that we all have our own race biases in hidden ways.
 
NBA referees were studied precisely because it is so ludicrous to suggest that their group is racist. They work in a highly integrated environment with differing races working together every day. They are constantly scrutinized in public, making even the slightest tendency obvious. They are rewarded and penalized based on their fairness and objectivity. You would be hard-pressed to find another group of people who could be held as a higher example of NOT having a same-race bias.
 
It would be almost impossible to show anecdotally that NBA referees have any race bias. But it was unquestionable when done statistically. In the split-second in which a referee must make a decision about whether a foul was committed, they are slightly more likely to make a call against a player of an opposing race.
 
(By the way, the study did not differentiate between the races. The abstract clearly states Our results do not distinguish whether the bias stems from the actions of white or black referees.”)
 
What is important about this study isn't that the NBA refs have a race bias. What is important is that they display a same-race bias that isn't – and really couldn’t be - conscious. It doesn't affect all fouls - just the marginal ones. It can’t be proven anecdotally, only statistically. It’s there, it’s real, and it’s almost impossible to put your finger on.
 
Does something similar exist in the major league baseball free agency market that only affects fairly marginal players, like Dye? I can’t find any study that says so, but there has been a similar study done for the NBA and was referenced in the Price and Wolfers’ study. It was conducted by Lawrence Kahn of Cornell and Malav Shah of Emory University. (link) The abstract notes:
 
“We study race and pay in the NBA for 2001-2002. For players who were neither free agents nor on rookie scale contracts, there were large, statistically significant ceteris paribus nonwhite shortfalls in salary, total compensation, and contract duration. But for players under the rookie salary scale (first-round draft picks) and free agents, race effects were small and insignificant. These results suggest discrimination against marginal nonwhite players.”
 
The Price and Wolfers study is a good place for the MLB free agency discussion to begin. We know that same-race biases exist in sports and we know that they are not easily erased, even given the best efforts of leagues. Would it really surprise us if a similar problem existed within the highly charged free agent market? If it did, would a couple of aging, defensively challenged ballplayers of African-American heritage like Dye and Sheffield be adversely affected? (Especially, if like Dye, the player reportedly erred in turning down some fairly substantial contract offers a few months ago?)
 
It’s legitimate to debate the degree which race bias might play when predominantly white front offices evaluate free agents like Dye and Sheffield. It may be significant, or maybe it isn’t. But before that conversation takes place, we need to welcome people, ballplayers included, that raise the issue. We need to recognize that biases exist, and not construct straw dogs that can be easily torn down. We may not get to the truth, but we’ll at least raise some awareness, and on this day, sports fans should be all about awareness.
 
That’s how we figure it out. That’s how we get it right.


More stuff from the TwinsCentric guys....

- Seth wants to debate Ron Gardenhire versus Joe Girardi

- Parker is giving credit to the bullpen for the Twins fast start. Incidentally, so did the Red Sox radio broadcast team yesterday.♠

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