THE HEADLINE cried wolf. The story begged for dialogue.

An academic research study encompassing 13 NBA seasons found racial bias in the calls white officials made, and racial bias in the calls black officials made.

This would seem to be a good launching point for one of those national discussions on race that was supposed to be an offshoot of the sordid Don Imus affair. Except that the NBA countered that study with its own 2 1/2-year exam, and guess what?

It gave itself a big, fat A-plus.

"The fact is there is no evidence of racial bias in foul calls made by NBA officials and that is based on a study conducted by our experts who looked at data that was far more robust and current than the data relied upon by Professor Wolfers," Joel Litvin, the league president for basketball operations, told the Associated Press Tuesday.

"The study," he said, "is wrong."

"He's a clown," said Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and co-author of the study.

Well, that was a short dialogue now, wasn't it?

Wolfers and a Cornell graduate student named Joseph Price looked at NBA seasons from 1991-92 through 2003-04 and concluded that fouls per minutes played was higher for black players when white officials made the calls and - although by a lesser ratio - the opposite was true when black officials made the calls. (The NBA's study included November 2004 through January 2007.)

Neither man is indicting the NBA for racism. Indeed, the statistics suggest the league has less of a problem than the world in which it exists. Yesterday, Wolfers touted the league as a "great laboratory" in which to examine issues of racial harmony.

"There's bias on the basketball court," Wolfers told the New York Times. "But less than when you're trying to hail a cab at midnight."

The real problem with the report might be in findings that suggest the results of games are affected by such bias.

That, of course, directly impugns the integrity of the NBA product.

Methinks this made the NBA a tad defensive.

"The short of it is Wolfers and Price only looked at calls made by three-man crews," Litvin told AP. "Our experts were able to analyze calls made by individual referees."

Here's one problem. Wolfers and Price's data, based on box scores, are public. Wolfers and Price's paper can be found, with an array of graphs and tables, on Wolfers' Web site (http://bpp. wharton.upenn.edu/jwolfers/

Papers/NBARace.pdf). This weekend, it will be presented at meetings of the Society of Labor Economists and the American Law and Economics Association, their formal peers.

The NBA study, which is said to itemize 148,000 calls made, has not been released. Nor will it be, Litvin said, citing confidentiality issues with its officials.

Question: If no bias was found, wouldn't those officials want to waive that confidentiality pact?

Wolfers and Price submitted their data to the NBA about a year ago, seeking a critique and dialogue, Wolfer said. They got this instead.

"I find it sad," Wolfer said yesterday of the NBA's reaction. He said he asked to see Litvin's study on his own dime, even offered to sign a confidentiality agreement, but was denied.

"I'm happy to have my paper scrutinized for all the right reasons," Wolfers said. "We're scientists. Litvin runs a business."

That business, more than any other sport, has touted its racial harmony. Recently, a very public spat between referee Joe Crawford and San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan led to a suspension (Crawford) and a fine (Duncan), and created friction between the league's officials and the NBA office. In the Spurs' playoff game Saturday in Denver - with commissioner David Stern in attendance - officials called three defensive 3-second violations, flagged Denver coach George Karl for leaving his coaching box, cited a player for not tucking in his uniform, and threw in a slew of petty calls to boot.

Duncan? He finished the game without a foul. A playoff game.

What an odd array of coincidences.

Coincidence or not, this might not be the best time for a discussion about referee bias, or even whether such a thing exists. And that's too bad. For if black, white, Asian and Hispanic reporters let their own biases seep subliminally into their jobs - and they do - it would seem to follow that NBA officials might, too.

Anyway, it would have been a way to kick off this national discourse on race we're supposed to be having.

Maybe in another 13 years, when another one of these studies is released, we can get it started. *

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