Letian (LT) Zhang – Harvard University


Channing Spencer – Harvard Business School

Yusaku Takeda – Harvard Business School

Article link: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0001839217705375

Question 1. What inspired you to choose the NBA as a research setting to examine racial bias, since we don’t see many organizational studies using sports as a case study?

I’ve always been interested in how ascriptive traits (e.g. race, gender, nationality) influence workplace inequality. When I was a second-year PhD student, I came across an economics paper showing that NBA referees are racially biased in their judgments (Price & Wolfer, 2010). I liked that paper; it was a really interesting and rigorous finding. I thought: why don’t I do something like this, too? I enjoy playing basketball and I know the NBA context pretty well. So, the next day I went online and started downloading all the NBA statistics that I could find. At first it was more of a side project mostly for fun. But over time I realized that this context has some unique advantages that could help us answer important questions. At that point I started to take the project very seriously. 

Question 2. What were the most challenging aspects of this project?

Methodologically, the biggest challenge was selection. Collaborations between coaches and players are not random, which means serious endogeneity issues. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this selection issue, and eventually I came up with several good ways to minimize it (see the paper for more details).

This paper is my first solo-authored work, which is both exciting but also challenging in some ways. It took me awhile to figure out how to produce a good paper. In this project, there were times when I felt stuck and not sure how to move forward. Sometimes I thought that I had come up with a great idea, only to find major flaws in it a few days later. It was not a smooth ride at all. I am grateful to have the support of my advisors, committee members, other faculty members, and fellow students, who have given me not only valuable feedback but also lots of encouragement.

Question 3. We were also interested in the “intentionality” of coaches’ racially-biased performance evaluations. To what extent, do you think what you found in this study is intentional vs. not? 

My results suggest that favoritism is at least partly conscious. I show that when the stakes are high (i.e. a close game or a playoffs game), coaches tend to display less same-race bias. If coaches played different-race players less because of deep-seated unconscious biases about ability, we wouldn’t expect this kind of adjustment in high-stakes contexts.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that coaches are conscious of the racial bias in their decisions. Like most people, NBA coaches probably have more favorable feelings toward some players, and they may play them more in games, especially when the stakes are low. Because of homophily, these favorable feelings tend to be toward same-race than other-race players, and this pattern could result in same-race bias in playing time. In other words, NBA coaches may be conscious of their favoritism (they know they like certain players better), but may not consciously conceive of this favoritism as a same-race preference.

This pattern may happen in many other organizational settings as well. We may not consciously think about race, gender, nationality, or other ascriptive traits when making decisions. But many of us do favors toward those whom we like, and in many cases those whom we like tend to be those with whom we share ascriptive traits. This could lead to ascriptive bias even though we may not be consciously thinking about ascriptive traits.

Question 4. You picked a research setting that is very much an “outlier” in management research, which is very useful in observing the specific social phenomenon of the researcher’s interest that is salient in the context. The common critique of this approach, of course, is mostly about the extent to which we can translate the findings to less visible, more general settings. Given the institutional complexity and novelty of the NBA as a research setting, to what degree do you think your results apply to other social contexts? What parts of your findings may or may not hold in other social settings? 

I do think that we should be cautious in extrapolating findings from this setting to other contexts. However, we should also keep in mind that the NBA setting is a very conservative one for examining racial bias. NBA coaches are closely scrutinized by the media and fans; players’ performance is visible; and the league is competitive. This is a context where we should not expect to find much racial bias. If we find racial bias here, then such bias could easily appear in other industries as well.

Question 5. What future work on this topic do you envision?

This study raises an interesting question: why would racial bias exist in a competitive setting like the NBA? Becker’s economic theory of discrimination suggests that competition should drive out taste-based racial bias. Does that mean Becker’s theory is invalid in this case? I am currently working on a paper that tries to address this issue. The basic proposition is that in a competitive context such as the NBA, team performance may be an important determinant of coaches’ racial bias. Coaches may restrain their racial bias when their teams have performed poorly, but may still exercise it when their teams have performed well. I am currently collecting a more fine-grained dataset to examine this proposition.


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