Spinning NBA Coaches; the NYT's Distorted Discrimination Claims

Article excerpt

Byline: Stephen G. Bronars and John R. Lott, Jr., SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The NBA has the best record in professional sports in hiring black coaches. But the New York Times got that record wrong late last month in a 2,200-word front-page story.

The Times' study of the past 15 years found evidence of discrimination against black coaches. A white coach, the paper claimed, typically gets to coach "50 percent longer [than a black coach] and has most of an extra season to prove himself." Discrimination is abhorrent, and the Times' evidence of discrimination caused real, understandable anger in sports pages across the nation.

Yet there are serious problems with the evidence. For starters, the Times authors, David Leonhardt and Ford Fessenden, selectively threw out data (such as not looking at current coaches). In fact, in one difficult-to-understand sentence buried deep in the article, they admit that if these data are included, "the gap between white and black coaches was nearly identical." Yet they offered no explanation for why they threw that data out.

And even with selective use of data, the differences they found are not statistically significant - in other words, their "evidence" doesn't show anything.

As one expert that the Times consulted, Harvard Professor Larry Katz, noted to us, the best research on this topic (by Larry Kahn at Cornell University) "finds no significant race differences" between black and white NBA coaches using "almost any reasonable set of controls." Yet the Times made no mention of any opposing evidence.

The Times refuses to share the data used in its published stories, making it more difficult for others to analyze and criticize the newspaper's statistical study in a timely fashion.

The Times reported that from 1990 to 2004, black coaches lasted an average of 1.6 seasons, while white coaches kept their jobs for an average of 2.4 seasons. The study excluded coaches who had served more than 10 years, coaches who had coached any time prior to 1990 and active coaches. Using data that we gathered independently with the same rules outlined by the Times, we found that black coaches lasted for 1.7 seasons compared to 2.57 seasons for white coaches. More than a third of the coaches were black, with all but two teams having employed at least one black coach.

But any empirical work explaining a coach's length of service should account for things like a coach's win rate and experience, among other factors. …