Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Maybe Hudson Got It Right

"We both know what it is. You’ll get it right. You’ll figure it out. I’m not gonna say it because then I’ll be in [trouble].”
- Orlando Hudson

Give the media some credit. We got it right. We figured it out. And whether Orlando Hudson said the word "racism" or not, he's in trouble. But not for the reason he should be.

The problem is not that he raised this issue. When Orlando Hudson hinted that Jermaine Dye and Gary Sheffield couldn’t get a job in part because of the color of their skin, he couldn’t have timed his comment much better. This week, and today of all days, the issue should be raised. Today Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day, the day that Jackie Robinson first broke the color barrier. This is exactly the day and the week that we SHOULD cut some slack to those willing to take on the risks inherent in talking about race biases.

No, the problem is that Hudson didn't talk enough. By only hinting at the argument, he left it for us to interpret his thoughts. It also allowed us to construct straw dogs, easily torn to pieces. Do we really need media heads to bravely declare that there isn't some conspiracy in the higher offices in major league baseball? Is that what we really think was being suggested?

I'll give the nine-year veteran a little more credit than that.

One doesn't need a conspiracy to be affected by racism, and we have ample proof of that. The most recent sports-related proof is a study three years ago which was wildly misrepresented because of when it was reported. In 2007, Joseph Price of Cornell University & Justin Wolfers from University of Pennsylvania conducted a study on racial discrimination among NBA referees. Using game data they examined statistically whether teams of referees who were predominantly one race called more fouls on players of the opposing race. They did.

“Against these baselines, we find systematic evidence of an own-race bias. Players earn up to 4 percent fewer fouls or score up to 2½ percent more points when they are the recipients of a positive own-race bias, rather than a negative opposite-race effect.” (link)

The study was publicized during the same time period as the Tim Donaghy scandal, and so the coverage generally followed the same tack as the headline from this CBS News story: Study On Race Calls Foul On NBA Referees. The NBA scrambled to do damage control and there was lots of debate, but the main point was missed. The point of the study wasn't to prove that NBA refs were racist. It was to demonstrate that we all have our own race biases in hidden ways.

NBA referees were studied precisely because it is so ludicrous to suggest that their group is racist. They work in a highly integrated environment with differing races working together every day. They are constantly scrutinized in public, making even the slightest tendency obvious. They are rewarded and penalized based on their fairness and objectivity. You would be hard-pressed to find another group of people who could be held as a higher example of NOT having a same-race bias.

It would be almost impossible to show anecdotally that NBA referees have any race bias. But it was unquestionable when done statistically. In the split-second in which a referee must make a decision about whether a foul was committed, they are slightly more likely to make a call against a player of an opposing race.

(By the way, the study did not differentiate between the races. The abstract clearly states Our results do not distinguish whether the bias stems from the actions of white or black referees.”)

What is important about this study isn't that the NBA refs have a race bias. What is important is that they display a same-race bias that isn't – and really couldn’t be - conscious. It doesn't affect all fouls - just the marginal ones. It can’t be proven anecdotally, only statistically. It’s there, it’s real, and it’s almost impossible to put your finger on.

Does something similar exist in the major league baseball free agency market that only affects fairly marginal players, like Dye? I can’t find any study that says so, but there has been a similar study done for the NBA and was referenced in the Price and Wolfers’ study. It was conducted by Lawrence Kahn of Cornell and Malav Shah of Emory University. (link) The abstract notes:

“We study race and pay in the NBA for 2001-2002. For players who were neither free agents nor on rookie scale contracts, there were large, statistically significant ceteris paribus nonwhite shortfalls in salary, total compensation, and contract duration. But for players under the rookie salary scale (first-round draft picks) and free agents, race effects were small and insignificant. These results suggest discrimination against marginal nonwhite players.”

The Price and Wolfers study is a good place for the MLB free agency discussion to begin. We know that same-race biases exist in sports and we know that they are not easily erased, even given the best efforts of leagues. Would it really surprise us if a similar problem existed within the highly charged free agent market? If it did, would a couple of aging, defensively challenged ballplayers of African-American heritage like Dye and Sheffield be adversely affected? (Especially, if like Dye, the player reportedly erred in turning down some fairly substantial contract offers a few months ago?)

It’s legitimate to debate the degree which race bias might play when predominantly white front offices evaluate free agents like Dye and Sheffield. It may be significant, or maybe it isn’t. But before that conversation takes place, we need to welcome people, ballplayers included, that raise the issue. We need to recognize that biases exist, and not construct straw dogs that can be easily torn down. We may not get to the truth, but we’ll at least raise some awareness, and on this day, sports fans should be all about awareness.

That’s how we figure it out. That’s how we get it right.


David Wintheiser said...

I'm pretty sure you're not looking for applause for this essay, but I'll applaud it anyway. It's a solid, rational discussion of the issue, and a great first step toward meeting the goal you set at the end.

It would be a shame if this ended up being the only step, because people interpreted the problem as being about race and race alone.

I have no doubt that Hudson's observation is correct, and that race does play some role in salary determination. The reason I'm convinced that's true is that Hudson's observation is a subset of the generally acknowledged psychological truth that human beings are drawn to that which they perceive as similar to themselves, and thus less drawn to that which they perceive as different.

I think the same factor that plays into marginal black players being offered lower salaries than marginal white players also plays into women earning less than men who perform the same or similar job: in baseball, the people making the salary decisions are almost exclusively white, while in the workplace in general, the people making the salary decisions are still predominantly male.

I think also that an expansion of the discussion of the issue leads more naturally to a discussion of the 'solution'; an understanding that these inequalities do exist, and that as existing inequalities in power are slowly balanced, the related inequalities (in compensation, influence in decision-making, etc.) will also balance.

I don't think you can ever make a world where these kinds of biases are eliminated, just as you can probably never make a world where lefty hitters bat as well against lefty pitchers as they do against righty pitchers, but you can grow into a world where, for each person who holds one small unconscious bias, another person holds a compensating unconscious bias, in effect allowing you to compensate for the problem to avoid letting it control your chances at success.

John H said...

Sorry but I think your article today is BS. I've following you for years and generally find your stuff enlightening and thoughtful. However I don't believe the race card has any influence on who gets hired anymore. Maybe if somebody was trying to get a job in a bank or store or something like but not on a professional sports team. No blacks in baseball? Just look at the kids on the high school teams here in Minnesota. I've been watching my kid's games for 8 years and can count on one hand all the black baseball players I've seen.

Mr. Horrorpants said...

This article proves, again, that having Twins Geek writing for our hometown team makes all of our baseball experiences more rich.

From Robinson to South America to Japan, baseball has expanded in fits and starts. The more things change, the more we have to think about.

I'm grateful the tone of this article emphasized learning and finding opportunities for growth over finger-pointing and grandstanding. It's the same emphasis that can (and has) made baseball great, when people choose to take the time to care and be thoughtful.

Adam Krueger said...

I agree with your premise that we all have race-bias whether it be conscious or unconscious. But here's the problem with your argument as you presented it; in the NBA when a ref is calling a foul it is ONE man deciding on the actions of another. In those cases there is no collaboration with a group of people to make the call, it is just one man. When a Major League Baseball team makes a trade or signs a player, you are talking about several people, if not dozens, involved in the process of scouting, evaluating, analyzing and ultimately deciding. How can you suggest a correlation between two things are are so different?

This whole thing is subject to the Third Variable Problem as well, but that's beside the point. The bottom-line here is that if any team out there wanted a player with Jermaine Dye's skill-set, namely poor defense and declining offense, for the money he was looking for, they would have brought him on. He has been offered contracts by the White Sox and Mariners and turned them down on the grounds that he thinks he is worth more. And this is all not to mention that players like Dye and Sheffield really aren't that valuable to National League teams because of their poor defense and lack of a DH spot in the lineup.

I really like Hudson and Hunter, but honestly, I wish they would just be quiet and play baseball. The evidence doesn't support their racial arguments, particularly when you consider that 7 out of the top 10 salaries in MLB last year were Latino players. The reason there isn't more black players in MLB is because the League does a poor job marketing itself to inner city kids, not to mention baseball is just more difficult to organize in the inner city because of equipment, etc. Basketball does a better job marketing itself to that demographic and also, all you need to play is a handful of people, a ball, and a hoop.

Thanks for adding intelligence to the discussion with your piece, but really the arguments that Hunter and Hudson are making are easy to tear apart because they don't hold much truth against the harsh light of reality.

JimCrikket said...

Thanks John. I'm not smart enough, I guess, to figure out what, if any, the underlying problems are... never mind figuring out a solution. But I'm smart enough to know that the off-handed dismissals of Hudson's veiled (or not so veiled) allegations by the "big name" writers and columnists around the country clearly evidenced a lack of interest in anything resembling serious examination of the issue.

As long as everyone could find an example of old white players also not getting jobs, then there's obviously no racial issue in play, right?

The reasons for decline of the numbers of black ballplayers in MLB are numerous and complicated and it would be wrong to claim that racism alone is the primary cause. But to use those other reasons to discount or minimize the racism that remains is wrong, as well, and only serves to keep the issue from getting the fair and balanced examination that it warrants.

Regardless of whether all of your points are or aren't valid, John, this is the first (and so far only) piece I've read that at least attempts to do more than blow the issue off. Good work.

SoCalTwinsfan said...

Hudson doesn't actually say it, but because he and Dye are both black it is assumed that he is talking about race. However, a story had come out just before this quote that the players association is talking about leveling collusion charges against the owners. I would think that could have a lot to do with it as well.

He probably is talking about race, but I just think it is odd that no one mentions collusion. I also wonder why the subject comes up at all. Hudson and Dye have no connection other than they apparently are friends. And Hudson talks like he doesn't want to talk about it.

Jeff Passan has a good story today about the same subject and points out all the great young black players in the game today. Look at the Twins. Besides Span and Delmon Young, you've got Ben Revere and Aaron Hicks who were both first-round draft picks, and I know Revere was widely thought of as a reach pick. it also seems like Span was thought of as a reach, but not to the same degree as Revere.

When I look at Dye and Sheffield, I see players that are aging and considered defensive liabilites. Dye was just awful in the second half last year and he turned down a guaranteed $3 million. There's an ever-increasing emphasis on defense and Dye was barely average as a hitter for right fielders last year.

I also think expanding bullpens are causing teams to devalue players that have no positional flexibility and might need a pinch runner or defensive replacement late in games. Pretty much every team now has the same short bench as the Twins.

Also, look at Jim Thome. He put up better numbers last year than Dye and he was forced to take less than what Dye was offered and agreed to be a bench player. I think Dye's problem is he just doesn't want to accept that the market is just not going to pay what he wants for his declining skills. The reason Dye doesn't have a job is because he refused to take it.

TT said...

More applause here. This was a really good job of analysis and writing.

One thing that should be clarified though. When you have statistically significant differences, as with the NBA referees, it does NOT mean any or every member of the group has some bias. It means that enough members have sufficient bias to show up in the aggregated results.

As for collective decisions being less subject to bias, I don't think that is true. In fact, to the contrary, the more people involved the more likely you are to introduce various biases.

If you have a manager who has a preference for certain players that is going to effect all the organization's decisions. Unless there is someone with an off-setting bias in the organization with similar influence, then the organization's decisions will tend to reflect the managers bias.

The same applies to anyone in the organization from GM to scouts to owners. If you have anyone who has a preference, that preference will be reflected in the organization's collective decisions to the extent that person influences the decision.

Jack Ungerleider said...

I'll join the chorus of "well done" for your entry today. Unfortunately there are probably multiple factors at work. I'm glad that Sheffield was mentioned early but not later in the post. I think it's fair to say that concerns about Sheffield are related to attitude and the kind of employee he would be. (He was able to get work when his skills brought more positives than his attitude negatives. See Bradley, Milton Seattle Mariners)

To deny racial bias, for or against, in any situation is impossible. We all make decisions we think are unbiased, but that determination of bias is our own. Someone else may see the same action as being an example of bias in one direction or the other. That's the problem, when decisions are made, even group decisions, you cannot be inside a person's head and know why the made that decision.

That said I'm inclined also agree with the idea that in Dye's case maybe his asking price was to high for his perceived contribution. (Of course you can hold up the $8 million that the Tigers are paying Johnny Damon as a counter.) It may be that unconscious bias makes it easier to justify a decision one way or the other.

The Kid NYC said...

Thanks John, that's the most nuanced discussion I've seen of Hudson's comments. I've never been in a major league dugout, but I have always wondered whether the "veteran presence" baseball managers love so much out of sunsetting guys like Thome is something they view black players as having on offer to the same extent, consciously or unconsciously, with the best of intentions. It's not necessarily knowable but it's annoying to see the comments dismissed out of hand.

TT said...

I would point out that what we know about players attitude and character is filtered through sports writers whose own biases come into play. Albert Belle was often portrayed as a "clubhouse cancer" by sports writers, but apparently his teammates didn't agree.

When national writers jump all over any African-American who has the temerity to suggest there is still racism in baseball, that has to effect the "attitude" of said African-American. If I were Torii Hunter or Hudson, I wouldn't I might have an "attitude" problem about my inability to get a fair shake from the media.

SBG said...

Go check and see what Dye's and Sheffield's contributions have been over the last three or four years and decide based on that, if you think they're worth much more than a couple million. Sheffield is 41, John! He made $14 million as a 40 year old. Was there no racism last year, but now this year? Dye is barely a replacement level player at this point.

We know Dye turned down contracts that were fair market value for what he's bringing as a ballplayer today. How about Sheffield? Has he said that he'll play for about $2 million (that's about what he's worth, according to fangraphs) but no one would sign him? I haven't heard.

I'm not saying that there isn't racism in baseball, I'm saying these two guys don't appear to be the most glaring examples. I would offer that Orlando Hudson's own case is a lot more compelling than those two guys.

Minnesotagirl71 said...

Hello Twins Geek writer and commentors,
This is my first visit to the blog. Just want to say that you seem to be a bunch of insightful and respectful people. I appreciate that you are able to disagree with each other and continue to have a respectful conversation about race and the impact of race and racism. I look forward to following this blog and future conversations.

JW said...

As a Twins Geek fan, I'm surprised by the low quality of this article (though discussing race at all does require a bit of fortitude). The Price and Wolfers study to which he repeatedly refers has no application to the MLB free agent market.

That is not to say people aren't biased. Humans are biologically programmed to be biased, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. For instance, it is good to be biased in favor of things that are healthy for you. With respect to race, humans are biologically inclined to feel more comfortable with people similar to themselves. But this is a sensory bias. While I question the validity of the Price study, it does involve a situation where such biases could be a factor: the refs are observing the players and making split-second decisions.

Baseball front offices discuss players on a much more abstract level and over a period of time. Maybe if they debated free agents by posting huge pictures side-by-side, bias could be a factor, but realistically it is not. The Kahn and Shah study would suggest otherwise, except it is utterly without merit. In particular, it fails to account for the fact that a disproportionate number of white players are centers, who receive higher compensation regardless of race (see, e.g., Matthew Dey's 1997 article in The American Economist). Note that Kahn's study methods date to the 80s, even in his more recent writings.

Hudson deserves criticism for making allegations for which there is no basis in fact, particularly given the incendiary nature of the subject matter. Hudson did not "raise the issue," he said (in as many words) that MLB front offices are obviously racist. It's part of the victim mentality which is pushed on nonwhites in the US, so actively that it even extends to ultra wealthy athletes.

Does Hudson believe the Twins are racist for signing Thome over Dye? I'd like to see someone ask him that.

walter hanson said...

I think Hudson doesn't know how to look at teams and how they're trying to build winners.

The Minnesota Twins in part didn't sign Dye because the Twins like defensive outfielders. The other thing last I looked the Twins have two young black outfielders on their roster.

Either this year or next two very talented black 1B might hit the free agent market and there is a realistic chance that the New York Yankees won't put in bid. After all they have a high price 1B already and they might want at least two other players to DH.

Maybe Hudson doesn't realize that players talents decline and don't deserve a contract. Henry Aron had to be traded to the Milwaukee Brewers because they had a DH. Tony Olivia couldn't play the OF. Harmon stopped hitting homers. Hudson has jumped teams in part because teams don't want to make a long term investment in him.

Walter Hanson
Minneapolis, MN

Marty said...

Does anyone have the actual research articles (not an abstract or a newspaper article about an article) that describe the NBA refereeing and free agency research? I'd love to look at their methodology. The important thing here (especially given that there are beliefs on both sides) is that the issue Hudson raises for baseball can also be systematically studied. If it's true that there's bias, then being aware can help and there may be other systematic fixes available. If it can't be shown that there's a bias, that doesn't mean that there isn't (because there may not be enough data), but at least we can agree to continue watching the data over time to see if anything emerges.