Study shows officials called more fouls on HBCU women’s basketball players from 2008-2017

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Photo courtesy of the Lady Pirates women's basketball team's twitter page

By: Bijan Bayne

Racial bias, even in its implicit form, impacts all areas of U.S. life, even those in which minority excellence is commonplace.

A new study demonstrates this pattern in athletic competition. The research illustrates officiating in women’s college basketball. According to research conducted by the Howard Journal of Communications, referees called more fouls against female basketball players from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) than their counterparts at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) from 2008 to 2017.

This pattern mirrors examples documented in the National Football League (NFL) and the National Hockey League (NHL).

Dr. Andrew Dix, the author of this study, is an assistant professor of communications at Middle Tennessee State University. He observed publicly available data from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) website. All 333 teams which participated in Division 1 from 2008 to 2017 were studied. There were 23 women’s college basketball teams classified as HBCUs, and 310 teams classified as PWIs.

Dix calculated the number of personal fouls per game (PFPG) that referees called against each individual team. He also calculated the 10-year average for every team.

The five most penalized teams were HBCUs. Eight out of the 15 most frequently whistled teams were from HBCUs, though they constitute less than seven percent of the universities studied. HBCUs were called for an additional 1.5 personal fouls per game than PWIs.

“One of the central findings from the present research was that referees called a disproportionate number of personal fouls against women’s college basketball teams from historically black colleges and universities relative to the number of personal fouls that were called against women’s college basketball teams from predominantly white institutions,” Dix said.

In addition, officials called far fewer personal fouls against female basketball players from PWIs than those from HBCUs. The statistics raise questions about the implicit bias baked into U.S. culture, and those statistics beg questions about how athletic administrators may address it.

“This research reveals evidence of flawed officiating, and [it] exposes a hidden socio-cultural issue in which female basketball players from historically black colleges and universities are at a competitive disadvantage when they step onto the court,” said Dr. Dix.

“It is imperative to provide a voice for the current and former female basketball players from historically black colleges and universities who have been subjected to this form of racial inequality in women’s college basketball. Creating awareness and fostering a dialogue on this iteration of referee bias is an important step towards facilitating meaningful change in the officiating of women’s college basketball.”

With the many economic and competitive challenges which HBCU athletic programs face, the data regarding racial discrimination adds one more disturbing and challenging dynamic.