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Friday, March 4, 2011
Sounding the whistle on referee analytics

By Kevin Arnovitz

When Jon Wertheim was researching his new book, "Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games are Won," someone associated with NBA officiating told him, "There’s a code that when the game steps up, we step down.”

Codes are human constructions, and for those who are disgusted by the idea of referee bias, that unwritten rule is precisely the kind of variable that corrupts the game.

The Tim Donaghy scandal and a study by Joe Price and Justin Wolfers on racial bias have focused the lens on NBA officiating in recent years. And the issue was the subject of a panel at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Moderated by Bill Simmons, the panel included Wertheim, NFL official Mike Carey, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, and sabermetrician Phil Birnbaum.

Call the game uniformly for 48 minutes
Among the findings in Wertheim's book is the revelation -- pretty obvious to most NBA fans -- that "whistle-swallowing" is rampant in the fourth quarter. For instance, the number of traveling calls falls precipitously.


This might be Cuban's biggest beef with NBA officiating, though he exercised a lot of restraint during the discussion. "I got an email from the league saying be careful what I say that there will be an intern watching," Cuban said in one of the bigger laugh lines of the panel. Throughout the discussion, the 2006 Finals between the Mavs and Heat sort of lingers beneath the surface. As a subtext, it provides a few chuckles.

Let's refine Cuban's stance a little bit more. More than anything he doesn't want context to have any place in officiating a call. Whether it's the first quarter or fourth quarter, LeBron James or Quinton Ross, a close game or a blowout, Cuban feels that each possession of an NBA game should be governed by the same rules.

"I don't want officials to have to worry about context, whether it's the crowd, whether it's the players, whether it's the time or the score," Cuban said. "It's a hard enough job as it is. If you have to worry about all those other elements, then it makes the job even harder."

Cuban said that games have monetary value to him as an owner, so getting this stuff correct is vital. Remove as much subjectivity as possible and include more clarity, he suggests, in the rule book. Cuban insisted that players are adaptable and cited the change in hand-checking and jump-stop rules as an example.

Replay
Cuban feels that, though it has helped the game, replay in the NBA has room for improvement. He put forward the following hypothetical: If in the process of reviewing an out-of-bounds call, the officials see that the player traveled with the ball, they should have the authority to call traveling. If there's a clear foul on the play, they should have the freedom to call it.

There was a general agreement that the NBA wouldn't be well-served by a football challenge "flag." Both Simmons and Cuban like the fact that the NBA corrects 2-point vs. 3-point calls during dead balls rather than interrupting the flow of the game.

Interestingly, Cuban approves of the NBA's using replay only for the final two minutes (with the exception of clear-path reviews and to determine which player should be taking free throws), which that runs counter to his opinion that games should be officiated consistently irrespective of time of the game. After all, if we want uniformity, shouldn't there be as much opportunity to correct a call in the first minute as the final minute of a period?

Referees are human beings
One of the more interesting exchanges occurred when Bill Simmons recounted Antoine Walker's time in Boston. Walker was notoriously surly to referees and would rarely, if ever, refer to them by their names, preferring to address officials as "You." Simmons suggested that dislike of a player probably had an adverse effect on how an officials treated that player. Cuban didn't take a specific position in response, but was adamant that if an official wasn't temperamentally equipped to deal with guys like Walker, then they were in the wrong business.

Wertheim expressed amazement at the lifestyle of NBA referees. He heard the term "chasing sleep" when he was researching his book and was floored by the travel demands and schedules officials endure. These are factors that are likely to impact performance. This launched an interesting conversation about whether there should be age limits for referees. After all, doesn't reaction time suffer as a person gets older?  Carey disagreed strongly. He insisted that, as he ages, he’s becoming a better official. He sees new things and is continuing his mastery of the game. The added experience more than compensates for whatever atrophy comes with age, he said.

Recruitment and development of officials
When Cuban first bought the Mavericks, he said he was shocked to learn that a large plurality of NBA officials came from a couple of conferences (Count the number of NBA officials who came up as refs near Philly). A lot of the hires were nepotistic and this upset Cuban. He then praised the league for making corrective measures, including hiring General Ronald Johnson to oversee the recruitment, training and development process. Cuban has been pleased by most of the league's crop of younger referees, "who are actually good."

The counterintuitive public
Wertheim might have had the most interesting observation of the discussion. He spent years researching these findings, yet encounters people all the time who really aren't that bothered by them.

"I was surprised by how many people said, 'So what?!'," Wertheim said. "'I like that when I run a stop sign at three in the afternoon, but run it at three in the morning, he lets me go. I like that there's subjectivity built in here and that the officials do call it a little bit differently' ... 'I like that the whistle is swallowed and that LeBron is getting a few extra calls a game.'"

This human observation is fascinating. As much as fans bristle at any perceived bias, many of them want the drama produced by conflict.