Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Match referees and racial discrimination

Allegations of racial discrimination among umpires and match referees in cricket has been a recurring theme in recent years. The perception that Asian players are at the receiving end of harsh and racially motivated decsions by both field umpires and match referees has been gaining strength. The high-profile incidents involving umpire Darrel Hair calling Sri Lankan off-spinner Muthiah Muralitharan for chucking, forfeiture of the Oval test in 2006 by Pakistan after being accused of ball tampering, and the decision of match referee Mike Proctor to slap "racism" charges on Indian spinner Harbhajan Singh during the Sydney test of 2007 (incidentally Darrel Hair was a party in the first two incidents, while Mike Proctor in the last two), have only added grist to the allegations. It is perceived by Asian cricketers that match referees adopt different yardsticks for punishing Asian and White cricketers for the same set of on-field offences.

It is in this context that an interersting NBER working paper by Justin Wolfers and Joseph Price on racial discrimination among NBA referees in the US assumes significance. They find that, even conditioning on player and referee fixed effects (and specific game fixed effects), that the more personal fouls are called against players when they are officiated by an opposite-race refereeing crew than when officiated by an own-race crew. These biases are sufficiently large that they find appreciable differences in whether predominantly black teams are more likely to win or lose, based on the racial composition of the refereeing crew.

This is surprising given the rigorous monitoring and feedback systems in place to monitor the performance of referees, so much so that it has been claimed that NBA referees "are the most ranked, rated, reviewed, statistically analyzed and mentored group of employees of any company in any place in the world". Further, the referees are arbitrarily assigned to basketball games, thereby minimizing chances of biased allocation.

It may be interesting if someone could do a Justin Wolfers and collect data and analyze disciplinary decisions by umpires and match referees in all types of matches over the past few years. Given the salience of racial discrimination in labour and other markets, as numerous studies have shown, I am inclined to believe that racial discrimination does exist in cricket too. Further, the growing bitterness surrounding recent cricket series between India and Australia and England, may only be a manifestation of the shift in global balance of power from Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) to the Cricket Club of India (CCI), something which can have strong racial undertones!

(There is an interesting article by Robert Frank in the NYT about the difficulty in proclaiming the victory of Barack Obama as the triumph of racial equality over discrimination.)

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