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Updated 4:00 PM May 15, 2008
 

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  Research
Performance, not race, plays role in NBA coach longevity

At least in the NBA, race is not a factor in the firing of coaches, although losing white coaches had somewhat longer tenures before being fired than losing African-American coaches.

The new study looks at differences between firing of African-American and white NBA coaches. The study found no difference in "technical efficiency" by race of coach, and found no evidence that there are differences in firings based on race, says lead researcher Rodney Fort, a professor in the Division of Kinesiology.

"The only strange thing about race ... is that of the coaches who were fired, white coaches seemed to have a little bit longer tenure," Fort says. In other words, losing white coaches may get a slight benefit of the doubt relative to African-American coaches.

The NBA is the most integrated sport, so the results are not all that surprising, says Fort, but they are significant for several key reasons. First, contrary to what many people believe of sports franchises, the market for NBA coaches works like any other healthy labor market is ideally supposed to work — you must perform. Second, by using the same scoring method researchers used, owners (if they aren't doing so already) can calculate their current coach's value, or technical efficiency, by how many wins produced. It appears that many owners already are using the technical efficiency score, since the league average score was about 13-percent higher than the average score of fired coaches, researchers found. This is a valuable tool when setting salaries, Fort says.

There are many types of racism in professional sports, Fort says, and the study examines only one type over a three-year period. It does not mean that racism is absent in hiring or salary decisions in the NBA, or in the more general networking relationships among players and coaches, he says.

The researchers looked at 27 coaches of color over a three-year period, and one reason they chose the NBA is because there are enough minority coaches to have a reliable research sample, Fort says. For example, an earlier study of hiring and firing NFL coaches found racial disparity, Fort says. But there were only five African-American coaches in that NFL sample.

"As the number of coaches of color in football increases into the future, we need to see if they are still being treated in a discriminatory way," Fort says. "This does not mean there isn't a problem in football, it means we need to look at football again."

In order to separate the coach skill from the bundle of talent on the team, researchers combed through individual stats of all players going back three years. Careful statistical techniques help separate the contributions that coaches make to wins taking into account the quality of players on their teams.

The paper, "Race, Technical Efficiency, and Retention: The Case of NBA Coaches." appears in the recent issue of International Journal of Sport Finance.

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