Crime and Punishment in the National Basketball Association

  • David J. Berri
  • Ryan M. Rodenberg
Part of the Sports Economics, Management and Policy book series (SEMP, volume 4)


This chapter investigates the overlap between National Basketball Association (NBA) referees, the league’s on-court rule enforcers, and the impact of player violence and aggression on individual salary, team wins, and team revenue. The authors’ meta-analysis highlights emerging research on the role of referees in regulating the sport and describes systematic referee bias in connection with race, league profits, and social pressure in the literature. More narrowly, and in contrast to several high-profile media reports, the authors unearth little to no evidence of NBA referees being biased against specific players, coaches, or team owners. With personal fouls as a proxy for player-level aggression, the analysis finds that players who commit more fouls earn lower salaries and hurt their respective team’s chances of winning. Using the high-profile example of Shaquille O’Neal, the authors also demonstrate how O’Neal’s inability to make free throws had a detrimental impact on how many wins he helped produce for his team and a negative effect on his team’s revenue. Such results reveal the overlapping tension between the NBA’s player discipline protocol, efforts toward referee consistency, and certain marketing and public relation goals the league may have.


National Basketball Association Regular Season Shoot Efficiency Productive Player Aggressive Play 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Abbott H (2008) Justin Wolfers and the Quality of an NBA Denial., posted June 12. Accessed online:
  2. Abbott H (2010) Study on Referees and Race Still Dogs NBA., posted December 8. Accessed online:
  3. Adande JA (2008) In Official Conduct, Personal Bias Still the Great Unanswered Question., posted October 3. Accessed online:
  4. Aldridge D (2007) NBA Referee Bias Story Has Many Gray Areas., posted May 5. Accessed online:
  5. Aldridge D (2009) The State of Officiating: What’s Wrong and How to Fix It., posted June 16. Accessed online:
  6. Alker HA, Straub WF, Leary J (1973) Achieving Consistency: A Study of Basketball Officiating. Journal of Vocational Behavior 3:335–343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Anderson KJ, Pierce DA (2009) Officiating Bias: The Effect of Foul Differential on Foul Calls in NCAA Basketball. Journal of Sports Sciences 27(7):687–694.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Associated Press (AP) (2007a) Stern Criticizes Study on Refs, Rips New York Times., posted May 4. Accessed online:
  9. Associated Press (AP) (2007b) Players, NBA Dismiss Racial Bias in Officiating., posted May 4. Accessed online:
  10. Bachman R (2009) Researchers’ NBA Officiating Study Detects Biases, but Not Necessarily the Ones Fans Suspect. The Oregonian, posted June 3. Accessed online:
  11. Bard RL, Kurlantzick L (2002) Knicks-Heat and the Appropriateness of Sanctions in Sport. Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal 20:507–524.Google Scholar
  12. Berri DJ (2006) Economics and the National Basketball Association: Surveying the Literature at the Tip-off. In Handbook of Sports Economic Research, ed. Fizel J, pp. 21–48. ME Sharpe: Armonk, NY.Google Scholar
  13. Berri DJ (2008) A Simple Measure of Worker Productivity in the National Basketball Association. In The Business of Sport, eds. Humphreys B, Howard D, pp. 1–40. Praeger: Westport, CT.Google Scholar
  14. Berri DJ, Schmidt MB (2010) Stumbling on Wins: Two Economists Explore the Pitfalls on the Road to Victory in Professional Sports. Financial Times Press: Princeton, NJ.Google Scholar
  15. Berri DJ, Brook SL, Schmidt MB (2007) Does One Simply Need to Score to Score? International Journal of Sport Finance 2(4):190–205.Google Scholar
  16. Bertrand M, Chugh D, Mullainathan S (2005) Implicit Discrimination. American Economic Review 95(2):94–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Bialik C (2007a) Parsing the NBA’s Study on Refs and Race. Wall Street Journal, posted May 14. Accessed online:
  18. Bialik, C (2007b). Follow-up on NBA’s Study of Race and Refs. Wall Street Journal, posted May 22. Accessed online:
  19. Brickman, P (1977) Crime and Punishment in Sports and Society. Journal of Social Issues 33(1):140–164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Brimberg J, Hurley WJ (2009) Are National Hockey League Referees Markov? Operations Research Insight 22(4):234–243.Google Scholar
  21. Dohmen TJ (2008) The Influence of Social Forces: Evidence from the Behavior of Football Referees. Economic Inquiry 46:411–424.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Donaghy T (2009) Personal Foul. Four Daughters LLC: Sarasota, FL.Google Scholar
  23. Emerson JW, Seltzer M, Lin D (2009) Assessing Judging Bias: An Example from the 2000 Olympic Games. American Statistician 63(2):124–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Fenwick I, Chatterjee S (1981) Perception, Preference, and Patriotism: An Exploratory Analysis of the 1980 Winter Olympics. American Statistician 35(3):170–173.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Feigen D (2007) Study Detailing Refs’ Racial Bias Goes Way Off Course. Houston Chronicle, posted May 5. Accessed online:
  26. Fluhr H (2007) Superior Data, Analysis Shows No Race Bias among NBA Referees. Sports Business Journal, July 23, p. 44.Google Scholar
  27. Fox J (2009) The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward, and Delusion on Wall Street. Harper Collins: New York, NY.Google Scholar
  28. Garicano L, Palacios-Huerta I, Prendergast C (2005) Favoritism under Social Pressure. Review of Economics and Statistics 87:208–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Greenberg J, Mark MM, Lehman DR (1985) Justice in Sports and Games. Journal of Sport Behavior 8(1):18–33.Google Scholar
  30. Griffin SP (2011) Gaming the Game. Barricade Books: Fort Lee, NJ.Google Scholar
  31. Hassett KA (2008) NBA Home Bias Suggests Referees Committing Fouls. American Enterprise Institute, posted June 23. Accessed online:
  32. Hollinger J (2007) Closer Look at Ref Study., posted May 9. Accessed online:
  33. Kendall TK (2008) Celebrity Misbehavior in the NBA. Journal of Sports Economics 9(3):231–249.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kim JY, Parlow MJ (2009) Off-Court Misbehavior: Sports Leagues and Private Punishment. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 99(3):573–597.Google Scholar
  35. Larson T, Price J, Wolfers J (2008). Racial Bias in the NBA: Implications in Betting Markets. Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports 4(2):Article 7.Google Scholar
  36. Lehman DR, Reifman A (1987) Spectator Influence on Basketball Officiating. Journal of Social Psychology 127:673–675.Google Scholar
  37. Maymin A, Maymin P, Shen E (2011) How Much Trouble is Early Foul Trouble? Strategically Idling Resources in the NBA. Unpublished manuscript.Google Scholar
  38. McCann MA (2006) The Reckless Pursuit of Dominion: A Situational Analysis of the NBA and Diminishing Player Autonomy. Pennsylvania Journal of Labor and Employment Law 8(4):819–860.Google Scholar
  39. Morgan H, Rotthoff K (2010) Bias in Sequential Order Judging: Primacy, Recency, Sequential bias, and Difficulty bias. Unpublished manuscript.Google Scholar
  40. Moskowitz T, Wertheim LJ (2011) Scorecasting. Crown Books: New York, NY.Google Scholar
  41. Munson L (2007) Even NBA Study Might Confirm Racial Bias in Officiating., posted May 15. Accessed online:
  42. Nevill AM, Balmer NJ, Williams AM (2002) The Influence of Crowd Noise and Experience upon Refereeing Decisions in Football. Psychology of Sport and Exercise 3:261–272.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Page L, Page K (2010) Evidence of Referees’ National Favoritism in Rugby. Unpublished manuscript.Google Scholar
  44. Parsons CA, Sulaeman J, Yates MC, Hamermesh DC (2011) Strike Three: Umpires’ Demand for Discrimination. American Economic Review, forthcoming.Google Scholar
  45. Pedowitz LB (2008) Report to the Board of Governors of the National Basketball Association. NBA, posted October 1. Accessed online:
  46. Persico N (2009) Racial Profiling? Detecting Bias Using Statistical Evidence. Annual Review of Economics 1:229–253.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Price J, Soebbing B, Berri DJ, Humphreys B (2010) Tournament Incentives, League Policy, and NBA Team Performance Revisited. Journal of Sports Economics 11(2):117–135.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Price J, Remer M, Stone DF (2011) Sub-Perfect Game: Profitable Biases of NBA Referees. Journal of Economics and Management Strategy, forthcoming.Google Scholar
  49. Price J, Wolfers J (2010) Racial Discrimination among NBA Referees. Quarterly Journal of Economics 125(4):1859–1887.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Price J, Wolfers J (2011) Biased Referees? Reconciling Results with the NBA’s Analysis. Contemporary Economic Policy, forthcoming.Google Scholar
  51. Rodenberg RM (2011). Perception ≠ Reality: Analyzing Specific Allegations of NBA Referee Bias. Journal of Quantitative Analysis of Sports, forthcoming.Google Scholar
  52. Rodenberg RM, Lim CH (2009) Payback Calls: A Starting Point for Measuring Basketball Referee Bias and Impact on Team Performance. European Sport Management Quarterly 9(4):375–387.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Ryan B (2007) Position on Foul Calls is Offline. Boston Globe, posted May 3. Accessed online:
  54. Sheridan C (2007) NBA: Claims of Racial Officiating Bias ‘Flat-Out Wrong.’, posted May 4. Accessed online:
  55. Schwarz A (2007) Study of NBA Sees Racial Bias in Calling Fouls. New York Times, posted May 2. Accessed online:
  56. Schwirtz M (2010) Hoping to Stir a Revival of Basketball in Russia. New York Times, posted October 10. Accessed online:
  57. Shmanske S (2008) Point Spreads and Referee Bias in the NBA. In Threats to Sports and Sports Participation, ed. Rodriguez P, Kesenne S, Garcia J, pp. 115–136. Ediciones de la Universidad de Oviedo: Oviedo, Spain.Google Scholar
  58. Standen J (2009) The Manly Sports: The Problematic Use of Criminal Law to Regulate Sports Violence. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 99(3): 619–642.Google Scholar
  59. Stein M (2008) Heft Alone Unlikely to Change Perceptions of Officiating., posted October 5. Accessed online:
  60. Showalter BD (2007) Technical Foul: David Stern’s Excessive Use of Rule-Making Authority. Marquette Sports Law Review 18(1):205–223.Google Scholar
  61. Thu KM, Hattman K, Hutchinson V, Lueken S, Davis N, Linboom E (2002) Keeping the Game Close: ‘Fair Play’ among Men’s College Basketball Referees. Human Organization 61(1):1–8.Google Scholar
  62. Winston WL (2009) Mathletics. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.Google Scholar
  63. Zillgitt J (2010) ‘Respect for the Game’: NBA Wants Players on Best Behavior. USA Today, posted September 24. Accessed online:
  64. Zimbalist A (2007) Study’s Credibility Suffers in Race to Report NBA Referees’ Race Bias. Sports Business Journal, May 21, p. 37.Google Scholar
  65. Zimmer T, Kuethe TH (2009) Testing for Bias and Manipulation in the NBA Playoffs. Journal of Quantitative Analysis of Sports 5(3):Article 4.Google Scholar
  66. Zitzewitz E (2006) Nationalism in Winter Sports Judging and Its Lessons for Organizational Decision Making. Journal of Economics and Management Strategy 15:67–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Southern Utah UniversityCedar CityUSA
  2. 2.Florida State UniversityTallahasseeUSA

Personalised recommendations