The New York Times has an article on an interesting study that is awaiting peer review before publishing in an economic journal, and the conclusion is this: white officials call more fouls on black players than they do on white players (at a rate of about 4%). Most of us would be saying, "well, duh, there are more black players in the NBA," and you're right -- that's a part of it, according to the authors (you can read the study for your own purposes here, it's a PDF file.) I've worked my way through most of it, and it seems like a mostly solid analysis of aspects that are hard to mark as say, outright prejudice, and more along the lines of the make-up of the NBA. The authors of the study would likely disagree with me, but I tend to side with the players: the NYT reporter quoted the Raptors' Mike James, saying he hadn't noticed an obvious, overt bias in that manner.
With their database of almost 600,000 foul calls, Mr. Wolfers and Mr. Price used a common statistical technique called multivariable regression analysis, which can identify correlations between different variables. The economists accounted for a wide range of factors: that centers, who tend to draw more fouls, were disproportionately white; that veteran players and All-Stars tended to draw foul calls at different rates than rookies and non-stars; whether the players were at home or on the road, as officials can be influenced by crowd noise; particular coaches on the sidelines; the players’ assertiveness on the court, as defined by their established rates of assists, steals, turnovers and other statistics; and more subtle factors like how some substitute players enter games specifically to commit fouls.(Emphasis in bold mine.)
The authors claim it's enough to affect game outcome, as if teams would gain several wins by adding a white player to the starting line-up. I'm not so sure, considering the majority of the league's players being African-American, but then again, these guys did the research. While we have to face the possibility at all times that there are subconscious racial factors in every line of work and how we live (hey, we're human), I think there's a bigger problem with the refs in the NBA, and it's one we can see at all times -- a preference to give the calls to the more established veterans or obvious superstars.
This is the officiating conflict that holds more weight with fans and casual observers -- it doesn't make a hell of a lot of logical sense when you hear a play-by-play or color man say, "Player X will learn a few years down the line, and he'll figure out what he has to do to get that call. He'll get those calls with more experience." It either provides favoritism for veterans or, even worse, learning how to manipulate the contact for attention from the refs, and both are part of the arsenal of most experienced veterans, be they superstars or veterans. Get the referees to call the game in the same way for vets, rookies, and those in between, and we can talk.
Either way, if you have a few spare minutes and a decent head for tables and statistical analysis, the study's interesting on its own, and so is the piece.