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.
Winning substantially helps job security (each one percentage-point increase in the win rate increases a coach’s job duration by at least 8 percent)—and it seems to help white and black coaches equally. But for some reason, if all else is equal, NBA teams win more often with a white coach—teams with white coaches had an 8 percentage point higher win rates. (That is, a .08 difference in the three-digit “winning percentage” seen on most sports pages.) The Times article focuses on anecdotal evidence supporting its contention that black coaches face discrimination, but there are at least as many examples to demonstrate that black coaches in the NBA are treated fairly.
Mr. Leonhardt suggests that concerns about issues such as selectively dropping data and statistical significance aren’t really relevant because the Times is “not an academic journal, it is a newspaper.” Yet the fact remains that the Times—a newspaper with millions of readers—alleges discrimination on the basis of evidence that simply doesn’t hold up. That’s the equivalent of yelling “fire” in a crowded movie theater.