Economics, Race Relations, and the Alley-Oop Pass

What do you get when you have three economists watching a game of hoops?

You get a new paper, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which measures race relations on the basis of professional-basketball passing behavior.

In the paper, “Interracial Workplace Cooperation: Evidence from the NBA,” a team of scholars from Brigham Young University examine six years’ worth of statistics about completed shots on the basketball court and the assists that led to them. The fundamental questions they are trying to answer: Do black players prefer to pass the ball to black players, and do white players prefer to pass to whites? Previous research has indicated that NBA referees and baseball umpires favor members of their own race when calling fouls or judging pitchers’ accuracy.

The paper’s conclusion: basketball players show no racial favoritism. “Our findings suggest that high levels of interracial cooperation can occur,” say the researchers, “where workers are operating in a highly visible setting with strong incentives to behave efficiently.” That doesn’t mean, they add, that black-white cooperation occurs throughout the economy. But it’s possible, they say, “when incentives are well aligned for efficient cooperation.”

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