Last year on Halloween, the Spurs dressed up as their favorite heroes (Tony Parker was a pirate and Tim Duncan was The Punisher) and playfully threatened a person with Joe Crawford scrawled across his back. It was a clear statement that the Spurs do not have a lot of love lost for Crawford. They would probably even go so far as to say Crawford has it in for the Spurs.
This is a common refrain in the NBA unfortunately.
Many fans, teams, players, coaches and others believe NBA referees are somehow extremely biased and play favorites in the league. It is a bad look for the NBA. Particularly coming out of the Tim Donaghy scandal a few years ago.
NBA officials do not always have the greatest credibility. They are only human, but fans do not care about that when it comes to their games. They expect perfection. And the bad calls get remembered better than the good ones.
Studies suggest though that referee biases in the NBA are just a fan-made creation. They do not actually exist.
Ryan Rodenberg of The Atlantic looked at several of the biggest claims of referee bias in the NBA and found . . . nothing. Absolutely nothing in fact.
I found nothing.
In other words, I found no systematic evidence of a referee’s personal animus negatively impacting the performance of the team in question.
In statistical parlance, my non-findings are known as null results. Researchers often struggle to publish such findings, creating what is commonly known as the “file drawer problem”—that is, the problem in which the public only sees the studies with the most eye-catching findings. But the dissemination of null results is critically important in a number of realms, including tests of NBA referee impartiality. A finding of “no bias” among on-court officials is what one should find if the referees are properly neutral. In other words, perhaps NBA referees deserve more credit than they’ve been getting.
Rodenberg specifically debunked the myth that Joe Crawford has it in for the Spurs. He watched 66 games Crawford officiated involving the Spurs and found nothing unusual in the big picture. He did the same with games involving the Mavericks and the supposed bias against Mark Cuban.
Rodenberg concedes that individual biases might come up when the game matters most and, thus, escapes real empirical study and data.
It is easier to see problems in individual calls then over the course of a long game.
The point of this study is that in the long run over the course of a 48 minute game, the referees are not screwing your team over.