Bias Against Female HBCU Players, Study Reveals

A professor analyzed fouls against women's basketball teams from historically black institutions. The results, he said, show a pattern of prejudice.

September 28, 2018

A new study suggests that long-standing claims of bias aimed at black athletes in college sports could be true, at least in some sports. The study, which appears in the Howard Journal of Communications, finds that teams from historically black colleges and universities are among the most heavily penalized, despite their small representation in athletics overall.

Andrew Dix, an assistant professor of communication at Middle Tennessee State University, analyzed data from the National Collegiate Athletic Association on women’s basketball teams that played from 2008 to 2017 in Division I.

Dix identified 23 teams from HBCUs and 310 from predominantly white institutions. Then he totaled the number of personal fouls from every game and calculated a 10-year average for each team.

Despite HBCU teams representing just a fraction of those in the division (less than 7 percent of the 333 teams), they were the five most penalized over the 10 seasons, Dix found. Overall, eight out of the 15 most penalized teams were from HBCUs.

HBCU teams were called out for 1.5 more personal fouls per game than teams from their predominantly white counterparts. Dix said that this proves bias among referees.

“This research … 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,” he said in a statement. “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.”

Dix has previously studied referee bias among HBCU football teams. His findings were published in the International Journal of Science Culture and Sport last year. Among football teams that played from 2006 to 2015, the 13 teams that referees flagged the most were all from HBCUs, Dix discovered.

The phenomenon extends to professional sports, too. A 2007 study of the National Basketball Association shows that white referees from 1991 to 2004 called fouls at a greater rate against black players than white players. And defenders of black tennis champion Serena Williams earlier this month cried prejudice when she engaged in a public argument with a U.S. Open umpire, whom she accused of sexism.

The case with Williams proves prejudice against athletes based on race or gender is quite prevalent, said Marybeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. She questioned, however, whether there were also black athletes on the teams at predominantly white institutions.

She said that HBCUs generally face the same bias as black people in the rest of the world -- the public "often think they are inferior and their students are as well," she said of HBCUs.

"If some of them are black, the implications are different and more complicated than this study portrays," Gasman said. "If they are white, I agree that there is racial bias and I'd like to see the NCAA look into this issue."

The NCAA did not respond to several requests for comment.

Shaun Harper, executive director of University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, said he was unsurprised by Dix’s results in both studies, which suggest that racial bias exists against black men and women in almost every facet of society.

He said it would be helpful to know the races of referees in Dix's sample.

“It would be fascinating, but not altogether surprising to me, if some or many of them were black,” Harper said. “Like racial bias in policing, the culprits are not always white -- they are sometimes people of color who have been subconsciously socialized to view predominantly black spaces as violent and aggressive.”


We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Share your thoughts »

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top