NBA Team Accused Of Discriminating Against Black Basketball Players
October 31, 2012, 01:26 AM
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Business Insider reports:

The Minnesota Timberwolves go into the season with only five black players on their 15-man roster, and some people are calling it a conspiracy. 

From Jerry Zgoda and Dennis Brackin of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: 

"How did we get a roster that resembles the 1955 Lakers?" asked Tyrone Terrell, chairman of St. Paul's African American leadership council. "I think everything is a strategy. Nothing happens by happenstance." 

That strategy, Terrell and others in the black community believe, is to sell tickets to the Wolves' fan base, which is overwhelmingly white. 

Lou Amundson, JJ Barea, Chase Budinger, Andrei Kirilenko, Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, Luke Ridnour, Ricky Rubio, Alexey Shved, and Greg Stiemsma make up 2/3 of the T-Wolves roster, and they are all white. 

Minnesota civil rights activist Ron Edwards thinks something is up too, and he told the paper, "It raises some real questions to me about what's really intended. I think, personally, that it was calculated. Is this an attempt to get fans back in the stands? Minnesota, after all, is a pretty white state.''

I don't see much evidence at all that white Americans like foreign whites more than African-Americans, but it might someday happen. More likely, a small market team management might try a strategy of building a whiter team in the hopes of getting better team play interaction effects.

So far, the Timberwolves' Achilles heel (or anterior cruciate ligament, in the case of Ricky Rubio) has been injuries. Rubio, the former Spanish child prodigy point guard, has been out since the middle of last season, and Love, the closest thing to a white American superstar the NBA has at present (at least as measured by his huge points/rebounds numbers — the rest of his game ...), recently broke his hand. So, we won't see if this strategy, if it is a strategy and not just randomness, works or not until the second half of the season.

One interesting study that I haven't seen done is differences in injury rates between races. I wouldn't be surprised if the prejudice against, say, white running backs in big time football might be based on a greater likelihood of white runners to get too dinged up to be effective. 

Back in the 1980s, Bill James did a rare race study comparing white and black pairs of baseball players with similar rookie year number for speed-related stats such as triples, grounded into double plays, defensive range, and percent of time caught stealing. He found a strong tendency for black ballplayers to maintain their speed later into their careers than white players. I can't find James' essay online, but here is Jon Entine's summary of it.

Now, this analysis couldn't distinguish between the differential effects of injuries on speed and the differential effects of aging on speed, but it's still about the best starting point I've heard of.

For example, on paper, Oakland's Reggie Jackson and Bob Allison, a 1960s Minnesota Twin who was electrifying for a few years, looked equally fast as rookies, but Allison's speed fell off faster, while Reggie stayed fast enough to stay in the league long enough to put up Hall of Fame career numbers. James also cites Davey Lopes's then-amazing 1985 season with the Cubs as a 39 year old part-timer in which he stole 47 bases in 51 attempts.

You might think that somebody would have looked into this more over the quarter of a century since then, but sabermetrics appears pretty allergic to obvious racial analyses. With the gigantic obsession in 21st Century America with fantasy sports leagues, in which hobbyists draft lineups and compete with each other based on their players' subsequent stats, you would think this question would be a big one. Instead, though, stat analysts appear content to let racial stereotypes and hunches, rather than statistically informed analyses, drive fans' decision-making in this regard.

I wouldn't be surprised that black athletes have greater resilience to the wear-and-tear of injuries, but I can think of a couple of other explanations for James' results.

The first is that James' methodology of finding matching pairs might not be that good. Assume that the black bell curve of speed is shifted to the right of the white bell curve, but you have only crude measures of baseball speed. For example, Allison led the league in triples as rookie with 9, which is a good indicator of speed, but it's a small sample size. Some of the other stats, such as defensive range and caught stealing, are confounded by baseball savvy. Maybe white baseball players tend to be savvier as rookies, while blacks tended to be multi-sport athletes who only decided to concentrate upon baseball at a later age? (Certainly Reggie Jackson evolved into one of the more cunning ballplayers by late in his career, but he was a star football player in college.) 

So, maybe Bob Allison was never quite the spectacular athlete that Reggie Jackson was, he just happened to have somewhat similar numbers based on not totally reliable measures. For example, James makes a big deal out of both guys being good college football players, but Allison was a fullback while Reggie was a defensive back. Big difference in likely speed. Perhaps white players who appear to be as fast as their matched black counterparts aren't really as fast on average, they're just the best that James' system can come up with. For example, I presume he didn't find any white matches for, say, Ricky Henderson, Willie Wilson, or Vince Coleman.

The second issue with the study is ... juicing. We don't know much about pre-Canseco experiments with steroids, but I'm developing some suspicions. 

I saw Reggie Jackson's titanic homer in the 1971 All-Star Game off the light stand on top of the third deck in right field of Tiger Stadium. It was almost unprecedented, but by 30 years later it wasn't so amazing. Barry Bonds hit two similar blasts in the 2002 World Series that the TV cameraman couldn't track.

As he got older, Reggie developed the top-heavy look of a serious lifter that became common in 1990s baseball. California muscle building culture was way ahead of the rest of the country in technical sophistication in the 1960s and 1970s.

Or consider James's example of Davey Lopes

I was a huge Los Angeles Dodgers fan during their strong 1970s, and I recall being at Dodger Stadium in the late 1970s when all the Dodger sluggers (the 1977 Dodgers was the first team with four 30-homer men) took a pregame jog through the outfield. They were men of average height, but extraordinarily wide.

Lopes was a leadoff man / second baseman whose career high in homeruns through age 31 was 10. Then he started developing more power and at age 34 in 1979 hit 28 homeruns, which seemed a bizarre total for a middle infielder at the time.

(Lopes' development, now that I think about it, had something to do with moving the outfield fences in at Dodger Stadium. In Sandy Koufax's 1960s, centerfield was 410 feet, then they brought it in to 400. The Dodgers had a lot of players who could hit minimal homers just over the outfielder's glove — Ron Cey drove my Dodger-hating roommate crazy with a lot of cheap home runs that barely made it over the fence.) So, management then made the centerfield fence only 395'. Then MLB set a minimum of 400 in center, so they had to move it out again, but I don't remember the exact years.)

I'm just tossing some evidence out there, mind you, not drawing conclusions.

By the way, I only saw about a minute of the World Series, but I was happy to see that the Giants' young superstar catcher Buster Posey seemed to be built more like an old fashioned lithe athlete, in the mold of Roger Federer or Chris Paul, rather than a top-heavy 1990's slugger. Hope (and fandom) springs eternal ...