Why refs disappear at crunch time

I worked as a newspaper editor for decades. I constantly had to make  decisions under deadline pressure. Occasionally, I’d spot something that I was 99 percent sure was incorrect. With no time to check, I could either make a pretty safe guess, fix the item  and spare the newspaper embarrassment or let a probable mistake go into print. What did I do?

Like all workers, I learned early in my career that a sin of omission leads to far less trouble than a sin of commission. Better 99 careless mistakes in the paper than one that managers could definitely pin on me. That’s how you survive in corporate life.

Referees know the same rule of survival. They definitely don’t want to make the wrong call at crunch time. But they often don’t want to make correct calls that could directly affect the outcome of a game. They want to disappear from the action. Let the players determine the outcome, is the way they  rationalize their actions. It’s a smart way to keep their job.

Those are the some of the contentions in a fascinating book titled “Scorecasting– The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won.” The authors are L. Jon Wertheim, a writer for Sports Illustrated, and Tobias Moskowitz, a finance professor at the University of Chicago.

The two writers don’t just throw out opinions. They pore through mind-numbing statistics from various sports to back up their conclusions. For example, they discovered that pro basketball refs call far fewer offensive fouls in overtime than earlier in the game. These are viewed more as “judgment calls” rather than hard-core fouls. Similarly, violations  like traveling and palming are also viewed as judgment calls that don’t directly affect the action. If  a team loses because of a traveling call, the blame shifts directly to the refs. They seem to have inserted themselves into the game. They then become the villains. Even fans of the winning team will feel the victory has been cheapened by a mere judgment call.

As the writers note, refs are in an ethical bind. They are supposed to be unbiased and call the game to the best of their ability. Yet fans and league officials don’t want refs to become the focus of attention. This conflict results in an “omission bias.”

“An offensive foul is 40 percent less likely to be called in overtime than during any other part of the game,” the writers say. “Certain ‘judgment call’ turnovers, too, disappear when the game is tight.  Double dribbling, palming and … traveling are all called half as often near the end of tight games and overtime as they are in earlier parts of the game.”

By contrast, calls for which officials don’t have much discretion, such as lost balls out of bounds, shot-clock violations and kicked balls, occur at the same rate in the fourth quarter and overtime as they do throughout the game.

Because of this omission bias, observant coaches and players have an opportunity to game the system, the book says. Star players in foul trouble are considerably less likely to have a loose-ball foul called against them compared with lesser players, the writers say. In crunch time, they can get away with more. But that’s not exactly because refs are protecting star players, the book contends. The refs are protecting themselves. They don’t want to incur the wrath of fans and league officials by having stars foul out at a key times.

Human nature being what it is, the omission bias probably works at all levels, even down in  the  CAC Winter Basketball League in Sacramento where I play. When the opposing star gets a break in crunch time, I’ll know not to scream and get a technical foul. I trust my teammates will do the same.

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