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Wednesday, September 05, 2007
Thoughts on NBA Officials, MLB Umpires, and Implicit Attitudes & Joba Chamberlain's Pitching and Suspension

Back in May, Alan Schwarz of the New York Times examined a paper by University of Pennsylvania professor Justin Wolfers and Cornell PH.D. candidate Joseph Price on how white NBA referees call fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players. The paper can be downloaded here. The authors do not assert that the referees intentionally or even consciously discriminate against black players, but rather that they are influenced by implicit attitudes, which are distinguishable from our express attitudes (i.e., attitudes that we are conscious of and are willing to share) and our private attitudes (attitudes that we are conscious of but are unwilling to share) in that they rest in our subconscious and influence us in ways that we do not appreciate. Implicit attitudes are particularly salient when we have to make snap-second decisions, such as whether to call a foul. Implicit attitudes have been the focus of myriad examinations, and while some question the methodology of Wolfer and Price's study, its findings are exactly what many neuroscientists would expect (for more on implicit attitudes, try taking the Implicit Associations Test or check out this very good article by Shankar Vedantam of the Washington Post).

Implicit attitudes are likely to be the subject of many other sports-related studies, and as Francesa Di Meglio of Business Week reports this week, there is a new study examining baseball umpires and implicit attitudes. In her piece "Racism Behind the Plate?" Di Meglio discusses the research of University of Texas economics professor Daniel Hamermesh and his co-authors. They find that due to implicit attitudes, Major League Baseball umpires make calls that favor pitchers who share their ethnicity and race. The authors examined every pitch from three Major League Baseball seasons between 2004 and 2006 to determine if racial discrimination played any part in umpire calls, and discovered that when the pitcher shares the home plate umpire's race or ethnicity, more strikes are called. According to the authors, given that there are more white umpires (87% are white) and white pitchers (71% are white), minority pitchers are more likely to show less favorable results and ultimately be undervalued. Their paper can be downloaded here and a related Situationist post can be read here.

Di Meglio interviews my co-author Jon Hanson and me for her story, and also references the Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School, which we recently started and which offers analysis on the implications of social psychology, social cognition, and other related mind sciences for law, policymaking, and legal theory.

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Last week, Yankees reliever Joba Chamberlian threw two consecutive pitches at the head of Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis. Chamberlain was ejected from the game, as the umpire concluded (probably correctly so) that based on two consecutive throws at Youkilis' head, Chamberlain must have been intentionally trying to bean him. Now, if he had only thrown one pitch at Youkilis' head, we probably would conclude that it was an accident, but two in a row changes everything. Over on The Situationist, Jon Hanson and I co-author a piece on Chamberlain's actions, his explanation, and MLB's suspension of him, and what all of it might say about our attributions toward the law and human behavior. Here is an excerpt from our piece:
Did you find him convincing? Major League Baseball didn’t, at least not completely. They concluded Chamberlain was sufficiently culpable to warrant an official penalty. Much like our legal system might, the League punished Chamberlain, suspending him two games and fining him $1,000 for “inappropriate actions.” Of course, had Chamberlain menacingly pointed at his temple between the two pitches, the League would have seen more unambiguously into the black box regarding his actual intent and would therefore have imposed a much harsher punishment.

The League’s response may do little to influence the likely payback that is to follow when the Red Sox host the Yankees later this month. Throwing fastballs at the head is a serious attack, one that Red Sox pitchers will want to avenge. Still, the League has intervened in part to prevent the sort of escalating conflicts that, history proves, often occur when attributions of blame between teams or other groups fester. The fact that two sides of a conflict make their attributions in group-affirming ways is a major source of the escalation. Both sides tend to agree on one thing: “They are to blame; we are not.”

Common-law historians tell us that a primary reason for the creation and success of the common law, particularly criminal and tort law, was to serve as a substitute for the “self-help” option when one person’s acts harmed another, and divergent attributions led to escalations of violence between individuals and groups. The common law provided a relatively neutral third party — be it a judge or jury of one’s peers — who could hear the conflicting accounts and reach a fair apportionment of damages or penalty based on perceived culpability. Assuming the institution remained credible, parties tended to live with those decisions and to be less eager to resort to self-help.

The same sorts of automatic attributional tendencies and dynamics that influence how we feel about a particular player on a particular team, or even how we decide to punish tort or criminal defendants can be found in all of our interactions — small and big. They even lie at the heart of many international and global conflicts.

For the rest of our piece, click here.

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Bonus story
: Geoffrey Rapp has an excellent piece on PrawfsBlawg examining why more main stream media outlets aren't hiring law professor bloggers. I appreciate Geoff's kind words in his piece.


I think it's obvious Chamberlain was throwing at Youkilis' head. The guy comes in with a 0.00 ERA and a strikeout to walk ratio of a little better than 4/1. That tells me he is pretty consistent around the strike zone. You don't just toss 2 pitches near 100 mph over a guy's head for nothing. He started him out with a breaking ball low and away, then moved a little further in with the next pitch, then went for the "earhole" pitch on two consecutive tries. I think it was a message that the Red Sox heard loud and clear. This was just another typical game in the greatest rivalry in baseball.

Anonymous Jason Canterbury -- 9/06/2007 7:26 PM  

could we not have left this discussion until after the season is over .... the umpires appear to have been made aware of this study and from what my DirecTV Extra innings subscription tells me, the umpires are over-compensating for the bias

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