Implicit Bias and Athletes

By | March 25, 2019

Last week in discussion, we talked about the way that biases can affect how soccer players are used on the field and how they are viewed by both managers and spectators. “African Soccerscapes” by Peter Alegi pointed out that African players in European leagues are disproportionately used as strikers or in wide positions, often seen as not suited to play the more cerebral positions in the middle of the field. In his book, Alegi compared this to a bias in American football against black players being used as quarterbacks, the most cerebral position in American football.

In discussion, we talked about examples of black quarterbacks being discussed and perceived differently than their white counterparts. While there are now many black quarterbacks, they are often assumed to be dual-threat quarterbacks, players that can both throw and run the ball well. Similar to the perception of African soccer players, the perception is that black players excel because of their athleticism and white players are usually better suited to roles that require more thinking and skill.

One particular example that was brought up was NFL prospect Dwayne Haskins. At Ohio State this year, Haskins ran for a total of 108 rushing yards, and in the combine, ran a 5.04 second 40-yard dash, the slowest of all 15 quarterbacks that participated. (Haskins time was slower than Eli Manning, who has 560 rushing yards in his 15 year career as a starter.)  Yet because Haskins is African-American, some people still view him as a running quarterback. Implicit bias among friends has led to comments about Haskins being a dual-threat and required me to present these stats to show that Haskins is really not much a rushing threat. More upsetting is that TV analysts such as Steven A. Smith have also committed this mistake. Smith, of ESPN, referred to Haskins as “more of a runner than a thrower.” While Haskins will still get a chance to compete in the NFL as a quarterback, it is very troubling that so many people, including professional sports journalists, hold onto these misconceptions about the connection between what an athlete looks like and what his style of play is. Were he not so obviously prolific and more of a fringe player, biases like these might affect his chances to continue his playing career.

Additionally, our discussion in class also reminded me of the story of an NBA executive attempting to remove bias from the selection of players. Daryl Morey is the general manager of the Houston Rockets and is one of the leaders in bringing analytics to decision making in basketball. Morey has developed and refined models to evaluate basketball prospects for the NBA draft. After a few years of using his models, Morey made a rule that any player comparisons must be made between players of different races.

Morey found that his staff was often implicitly biased and would associate players they watched with other players that looked like them. It was too easy for a scout to fall into the trap of labeling a tall white player as “the next Dirk Novitski” or a white guard as “similar to Manu Ginobli” even when these players’ games might not resemble the players they were being compared to very closely. Further, Morey found that these comparisons were incredibly powerful and affected the way the scouts would rate and talk about the players. A comparison to a good player could lead to more favorable ratings and a comparison to a bad player could cause the Rockets to pass on a player, even if the models predicted he would be successful. (Morey’s most significant miss is passing on All-Star Marc Gasol largely because someone on his staff had nicknamed him “Man Boobs” after seeing an unflattering shirtless picture of Gasol. Gasol was well-regarded by Morey’s models and Morey’s evaluation system says that Memphis choosing Gasol with the 48th pick is the 3rd best single draft choice of the past decade. Morey no longer allows nicknames for Draft prospects.)

By making the rule of interracial player comparisons, Morey believes that he forces his staff to be more careful about their comparisons and focus on the substance of the prospects’ games rather than their appearance. Unfortunately, in this case and in the case of African soccer player positions, the racial associations that many of us harbor are affecting outcomes for young players. Morey’s deliberate efforts to eliminate these implicit biases are inspiring and should serve as a model for other sports executives. There are countless examples that prove that any stereotypes about athletes of a certain race are false. And it is not only negatively impacting the athletes that are on the receiving end of this bias. As Morey shows, teams that fail to eliminate bias from their evaluation of players miss out on or misuse incredible talent, costing teams the opportunity to best utilize all of the talent available to them.


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