Black NBA players have shorter careers than white players. Is bias a factor?

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The NBA has featured significantly more Black players than whites for decades. A new study, however, finds Blacks are more likely to exit the league earlier than their White teammates. Researchers from The Ohio State University say that if an African-American player and Caucasian player have the exact same stats, the Black player has a 30-percent higher chance of leaving the NBA altogether in any given season.

Study authors explain these findings are mostly based on bench players — those averaging less than 20 minutes per game. This is due to the fact that bench players make up the majority of the NBA.

Troublingly, lead study author Davon Norris, a doctoral student in sociology at OSU, says his work makes a strong case that Black players are still dealing with discrimination in the modern NBA. For reference, African-Americans currently make up roughly 70 to 75 percent of NBA players.

“If there is going to be anywhere in America where you would expect there wouldn’t be racial disparities, it would be the NBA,” Norris says in a university release. “But even here we find there is an advantage to being white for most.”

‘Black NBA players should have longer careers, but they don’t’

Regarding purely raw data on career length, both races generally leave the NBA at similar rates. However, co-author Corey Moss-Pech, a PhD graduate of Ohio State, says that all changes once you consider on-court performance.

“We see the effects when we account for performance,” explains Moss-Pech, who is now a postdoctoral research fellow in sociology at the University of Michigan. “Black players tend to be better than white players, according to the data. They should have longer careers, but they don’t.”

Researchers analyzed the careers of all NBA players between the 1979-80 and the 2016-17 seasons. From there, they narrowed the investigational field to 2,611 players classified as either White, Black, or “international.” When it came time to evaluate individual player performance, study authors used the same “advanced metrics” system the NBA employs. This includes looking at players’ efficiency ratings, offensive win shares, defensive win shares, points scored, rebounds, steals, and blocks.

After accounting for all these factors, “stark differences” appeared in terms of the career lengths of Black players in comparison to White players.

For instance take two groups of NBA players, one White and one Black, with identical defensive skills. While 26 percent of White players playing at this level defensively exited the league by their fifth pro year, that statistic jumped up to 33 percent for Black players.

Who makes the call on who’s on the bench?

When it comes to NBA starters and role players, the influence of race isn’t as significant. For bench players however, these stats are hard to ignore.

“For those on the bench, being white really gives you an advantage,” Norris says. “We have these cultural stereotypes that white men distinctly lack ability at basketball, but our analysis shows that this has little bearing on how long they last in the league.”

All of this brings us to the next question of why? Who is making these decisions? Study authors looked to see if head coaches had any impact, but found little differences between white and Black head coaches.

This is speculation, but Moss-Pech theorizes Black players are viewed differently than White players once the game is over.

“Bench players may be more valued for their ‘locker room presence’ or for being a ‘good teammate’ than for their in-game performance. But concepts like ‘good teammate’ are likely racialized in a biased way that benefits White players,” the researcher comments. “White players may fit more comfortably into these team and organizational roles. We need more research that directly examines whether white and Black bench players are perceived differently in the media, by fans, by players or by decision makers.”

These findings hold implications far beyond the National Basketball League. If this can happen in the NBA, there’s a chance it is happening in other leagues, sports, and other industries.

“NBA teams have all these stats available to measure productivity, and distinguish good from bad players, and yet we still see that disadvantages persist,” Norris concludes. “There are underlying structural and organizational processes at work that can undermine even the best efforts to objectively measure performance.”

The study is published in Social Forces.

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