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The Transparency Debate: Is the NBA right when the Referees are wrong?

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Ed. Note: Yesterday the Hardwood Paroxysm crew had a very spirited debate about the purpose, the merits, and the endgame behind the league issuing a statement about the blown call at the end of the Blazers-Rockets first playoff game, as well as the league’s statements about other controversial calls. The following is transcript of the debate, lightly-edited.

NBA STATEMENT ON PORTLAND-HOUSTON GAME

NEW YORK, April 21, 2014 – Rod Thorn, NBA President, Basketball Operations, issued the following statement today regarding a play late in the fourth quarter of the Portland Trail Blazers’ 122-120 win over the Houston Rockets on April 20, at Toyota Center:

“After video review by the league office, we have determined that the officials were incorrect in assessing a foul to the Rockets’ Dwight Howard with 10.8 seconds remaining in overtime.  The foul should have been called on the Blazers’ Joel Freeland and Howard should have been awarded two free throws.”

To view the play, click on the following link:

http://www.nba.com/video/channels/originals/2014/04/21/hou-por-game-1-west-conf-first-round.nba/index.html

Amin: OOPSY POOPSY

Noam: That should have been the title of the press release.

Kevin: This is really stupid that they keep doing this.  There are missed calls in every game.  I don’t see who it helps to essentially send out these #MyBad missives for certain bad calls and basically admit the outcome of the game was wrong.  It sucks for the refs, doesn’t help the losing team at all, and must be annoying for the winning team.  It stokes the fires of bitching and what it looks like is the NBA main office washing its hands of mistakes made by its employees on the ground but doing it with the benefit of hindsight.  It’s a really dickish way for employers to treat their employees and it has no actual benefit.

Seerat: #TRANSPARITY THO

(might coin that)

Jared: Strongly, strongly, strongly disagree, Kevin. It’s good for Adam Silver’s transparency campaign. At least acknowledging that they know there are issues goes a long way.

Caleb: Something that would be hilarious — and would never, ever happen — would be if they went through and documented every single missed call over the course of the game for every game.

I also wish they would give refs Google Glass so we could see exactly what they see. There are some calls that seem obvious on replay that aren’t nearly that clear in real time, from the ref’s point of view.

Kevin: I think the better arena, then, is to do it after the season in a more comprehensive study. Doing it selectively and immediately after the games just looks like you’re not acknowledging that the refs have a really hard job.  Also: if you can review it after the game and decide the wrong team won, why don’t you give the refs the opportunity to review foul calls in game and prevent it from happening in the first place?  It seems, if not hypocritical, at least inconsistent.  And I know the general arguments against expanding replay but why put guys out there in a position to fail when you are then going to use the same technology of which you’re depriving them to announce that they screwed up?

Also I think it increases the odds that if a call goes in, say, Houston’s favor in Game 2, people wil be luck “YEP THAT WAS RIGGED BY THE LEAGUE, MAKE-UP CALL.”

It seems like this weird accusatory catharsis that doesn’t actually solve anything.  I guess they’re doing it to convince people that games aren’t fixed?  Which seems overly defensive but also is it really harder to fix a game when you’ve established that you’re more than happy to just admit the refs messed up afterwards?

Jared: I think the better arena, then, is to do it after the season in a more comprehensive study.

This very obviously already happens. Officials are constantly under review. Why should it only happen after the season, though?

Kevin: What is the value of it happening so quickly on the heels of the games?  Like seriously this is not a rhetorical question: who is the beneficiary?  The fans?  Why?

Emeritus: The value is in admitting that a mistake occurred. Not saying anything makes you look oblivious, foolish, or that you’re trying to hide something. Doing it opens up the criticism, but it also says “Hey, we screwed up. Here’s where we screwed up, and why.” The beneficiary is the league. There can’t be a beneficiary beyond that because of the space-time continuum.

Kevin: It’s possible that I only hate this so much because, as something new, it seems jarring when they put it out. Maybe it will become regular enough to stop seeming like a scarlet letter on the refs, but right now I just think it’s kind of shitty.

And I generally thought the refs sucked last night.  I also thought they sucked in LAC/GSW.  Picking out one call from each game makes it seem like both outcomes were invalid and it points the finger at people who didn’t have the same opportunity to analyze the play as the folks putting out the memo did.

But it’s picking and choosing specific mistakes.  The subtext is “Houston deserved to win the game” but that closes its eyes to every other potential screw-up that happened along the way.

Jared: Boy do I strongly disagree again. The idea is not “Houston deserved to win,” it’s “Dwight deserved two free throws.”

Caleb: And also to, you know, keep playing.

Kevin: Honestly I’m just worried that more stuff like this will happen and the next thing you know you won’t even be able to freeze and envelope to get the Knicks a franchise center without causing a major fucking to-do.

Scott Rafferty: I like what you said about it stoking the fire, Kevin. I’ve already seen a few Rockets fans say something along the lines of “well, we should’ve won game one. Look! We got screwed.” But I also agree with Jared in the sense that it’s not saying Houston should’ve won the game, rather that Dwight should’ve had two free throws instead of fouling out (which could’ve led to a win, what do we know).

Kevin: Right I’m not talking about what the letter actually says I’m talking about subtext and fan interpretation. Here’s how I see the reactions playing out:

Refs: “Screw you guys, if you want us to NEVER miss a big call then let us review everything in the last two minutes.”
Losing Team: “Well this fucking helps us zero.”
Losing Team’s fans: “ASFJAS;LHFKASD;LFJAS;LDFKJASASD;LFJAJALSFJ;LKROBBBBBBEEEEDDDDDDD”
Winning Team: “Oh.  Meh.”
Winning Team’s Fans: [grin sheepishly/GET MASSIVELY OVERDEFENSIVE]

Apr 19, 2014; Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) looks for a foul call in the second half of game one during the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs. Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Caleb: But we already knew they messed up. Everyone who saw the play knew it was wrong. If the NBA doesn’t say anything, at best they look like they’re not paying attention, and at worst they seem like they don’t care. Acknowledgement of wrongdoing is good.

Kevin: I don’t get letting us know there’s “A PROBLEM” like as a monolith.  Refs miss calls.  Whether the league says it or not, I know the league knows they miss calls.  Picking a couple dozen plays a year to point out just makes it seem like the league thinks those are the ONLY important calls they missed.  Which is why I think a widely circulated end of year report that said “Here is how we did this year, here were some notable mistakes, here are the refs who did better versus worse, etc.” is so much better then basically throwing chum into the waters when fans are emotionally supercharged.

Jared: Why are they mutually exclusive?

Emeritus: Right, but fans are going to say that anyway and think the league is out to get them no matter what. There’s only benefit in admitting this. It acknowledges people make mistakes, which is something people need HAMMERED INTO THEIR CORTEXES WITH A RAILROAD SPIKE LIKE PHINEAS FUCKING GAGE.

Kevin: I really don’t think you need to get a press release a couple times a week to stop you from inferring that the league thinks the refs are flawless.  The prima facie assumption is that people are imperfect.  I don’t see how it benefits the league or the discourse to criticize guys who already know they screwed up.

Like, say Melo takes a contested jumper instead of passing to an open Chandler with 5 seconds left, down 1.  Should the Knicks file a press release that says “WE REALIZE THAT CARMELO ANTHONY SHOULD HAVE PASSED TONIGHT”?  Wait never mind that actually sounds amazing they should do that.

And they don’t have to be mutually exclusive but the ones that are thrown out immediately are going to draw a lot more attention and drive the way people perceive the refs and the way games are called.  Which would be fine if they were an accurate overall representation but they aren’t, they serve to further underscore missed calls that ALREADY were underscored based on the time and situation in which they occurred.

It seems like everyone disagrees with me on this and I’m willing to accept that I’m just flat wrong.  I just don’t think you need to throw refs to the dogs to be transparent.

Scott R: I’m on the fence, to be honest. Part of me likes the transparency because, as Emeritus said, everyone should be able to acknowledge their mistakes, but I also get the argument that it’s throwing the refs under the bus. Their job is hard enough as it is and they get it from the neck from the fans and media anyway, so sending out a press release saying they botched a pivotal moment of the game is like pointing fingers.

I’m torn.

Seerat: I’m on board, mostly because I don’t think you can fix something without acknowledging its existence.

Curtis: The problem isn’t the transparency or the blown calls. The problem is people not understanding refereeing basketball is a ridiculously hard job.

Scott R: That’s what I was trying to get at, Curtis. Refereeing a basketball game is ridiculously tough. I’ve coached several basketball camps over the past two summer’s and I’ve always had to step in to ref scrimmages. They’re meaningless games, but I’ve always hated it because it’s so damn hard to keep an eye on everything and make a split-second judgement on what happened.

Noam: I’m 100% on the transparency side. Simmons is maybe the biggest name NBA writer out there and he casually drops the notion that the NBA is rigged twice a month, and even though you can dismiss it as just Simmons being Simmons, that stuff resonates with the casual fan. Anything that can be used to disinfect that notion should be blessed (FYI, that’s also why I think they should televise the lottery).

Kevin: But that’s just it, I also think that’s a big part of the reason they do it and I think if anything it’s likely to have the reverse effect.  Why is it harder to fix a game just because you’re going to acknowledge ONE bad call after the fact?  And now if a bad call wins Game 2 for Houston, this will make some people think Game 2 was fixed.  I think it nets out at best and ultimately probably causes a bigger controversy.

Sean: I’m #TeamTransparency.

Emeritus: The other thing that’s missing here is this: If the league doesn’t announce it? That’s not an indication it’s being omitted, that’s an indication it was the RIGHT call. That’s a huge thing for the league. It’s saying “Look, THIS was wrong.” “But what about this other one?” “We didn’t say anything about that, because it was correct.”

Kevin: I am really 100% for evaluating the refs and doing so publicly and comprehensively.  I am not for choosing the moment immediately subsequent to an employees’ single biggest mistake to call intention to him/her when they’re doing their best at a very hard job and you only know they’re wrong because you are allowed to look at replays that they weren’t.

Seerat: Part of it is logistics: It’s hard to analyze every potential bad non-call or call and get it out to the public in a time frame that’s still relevant.

Kevin: Emeritus, I don’t know if you view that as a positive or a negative.  Maybe I’m misunderstanding it but that seems like more of an argument against these press releases (because unless you do one for literally every bad call it implies you’re signing off on some of the wrong ones).  Did I miss something?

Emeritus: No, Kevin, it’s that the league is telling you “We’ll tell you when the call is bad. You can trust us, we’re going to let you know if we screw up.” You can disagree, but I think that’s the element.

And also, just so we’re clear here. NO ONE is protected more than the officials. You can’t speak to them. They’re not available for media availability. They don’t have to answer to anyone but their employers.

And when all the posts come out on this information? They’ll be about the call. They never specify who made the call. You can go find out, but it’s not made publicly available.

In doing so, the league’s not saying “THEY screwed up.” It’s saying “WE screwed up.” It actually protects the officials by taking ownership of their mistake, to be honest.

Kevin: And I guess that last point gets to the real heart of this.  I don’t think these read like “WE screwed up.”  I think they read like “The refs screwed up and we know you’re upset about it and so are we.”  And that’s really just a question of interpretation, but presented without comment but with emphasis added:

“After video review by the league office, we have determined that the officials were incorrect in assessing a foul to the Rockets’ Dwight Howard with 10.8 seconds remaining in overtime.  The foul should have been called on the Blazers’ Joel Freeland and Howard should have been awarded two free throws.”

I just think there’s a false dichotomy being drawn here.  I’m not talking about transparency or not.  I’m talking about the best way to disseminate information to maximize the odds that it is consumed constructively rather than destructively.  If this were news in a genre that mattered more (e.g., the government admitting a major screw-up), I’d want to know they acknowledged it immediately also.  But I think this is a game with various interested parties and that all of the parties would benefit more from a policy of “There are mistakes made in every game, we’re constantly working to minimize them, we will submit annual (or even monthly) reports to let you know that we know what they are, but the refs have a really hard job and we’re not going to kick them while they’re down just to score points with fans at the officials’ expense.”

Apr 19, 2014; Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) reacts as he is called for his 4th foul on Warriors forward David Lee (10) in the second half of game one during the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Seerat: I think the divide here is interpretation. Kevin interprets it one way. I interpret it like it actually does the opposite and humanizes refs, draws an eye to how hard reffing actually is etc. But right now, I think that’s the important part. Admitting reffing mistakes is an entirely new thing to the league and it would be weird if there weren’t different, smart opinions. For the first little while, that’s sort of the point: having the discussion. Now, it’d be a little more level-headed if the reffing gaffes weren’t always the polarizing ones, but I don’t think it’d draw nearly enough attention either.

Amin: Transparency isn’t an end in of itself, just like statistics and motion-tracking aren’t ends in of themselves. There need to be purposes behind them, and the purposes are allegedly to serve the fans. However, this fan-serving is so ill-defined it’s clear that these are just large-scale PR moves to make the NBA appear to be more open.

If the end goal is “fair” officiating, then there wouldn’t be tendencies and biases among refs, and they’d always have offsite officiating in addition to on-site. And they’d send us emails about blown calls in the middle of the first quarter that went against the winning team, in addition to fouls in the last 10 seconds of overtime that went against the losing team.

The transparency, to be effective to make the league transparent, has to be for something, and it has to be consistent. Right now, the only thing that’s transparent is the league’s desire to make itself look good by passing the blame onto the refs.

Seerat: Also: Appearing transparent helps them be not transparent with other things. /is having many thoughts contradicting each other right now.

Scott R: Has the league sent out a statement this season on a missed call with like two minutes remaining in regulation that changed the course of the game? Or have they only released them when it has come down to calls on final possessions?

I think I know the answer to my question and I’m basically trying to back up Amin here.

Emeritus: They’ve announced a variety of calls in a variety of situations.

Amin: They’ve come on “game-altering” calls. That’s my term, not theirs, but it’s basically on things that get external review scrutiny: techs, disputed fouls, flagrant fouls, ejections, fouling out, etc. Those can come at any point during the game, but since ref review is allowed to take forever during the clutch, they do more emails about those incidents since those are always under larger scrutiny.

And I think that’s dismissively vague, Emeritus. They look at situations that they subjectively determine can have an impact on the outcome of the game. Possession determinations and player removals at the forefront.

For example, if Blake Griffin fouls out, they’ll review his 6th foul to see if it was warranted. But they won’t review the other 5 fouls before that, even though they have equal weight, and 3 of them could have been bullshit ticky-tack fouls that one ref likes to call but another, who’s reffing a different game, doesn’t.

Plus, as Kevin previously said, doing this pushes the blame to the refs and not the league. So the league, out of one side of its mouth, says “the refs do the best they can.” And then out of the other side of its mouth says “well, this situation is out of your purview, referee, we’ll take it from here.” It’s inconsistent, and that further invalidates the transparency argument.

Apr 19, 2014; Hawks guard Louis Williams (3) wanted a foul called against the Indiana Pacers in game one during the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Scott Leedy: I kind of think you have a point Kevin.

For example they didn’t also release a memo saying Howard traveled earlier in OT, in what was an equally important call in many ways with Lopez fouling out + FTs. I dunno, I think it focuses too much on singular calls rather than whole picture. Doesn’t encourage people to actually look at the sum of what is occurring.

Then again, I think transparency is great… I also think it is unfair to put Kevin on the side of anti-transparency. He’s clearly not.

Kevin: +1+1+1+1

Scott R: Just as an example: in game one, Paul George stepped way out of bounds on a double team, it wasn’t called, and I think someone on the Pacers hit a three off of his assist. He was clearly out, but the refs missed it, and there was no statement release about that. And I know it meant nothing in the big scheme of things because it happened in the second quarter (I think) and the Hawks went on to win big and what not, but still, #transparency.

Jared: So they have to release a memo about every blown call, or none at all?

Scott R: I don’t know what the solution is. There just seems to be some inconsistencies here. That’s what I was trying to get at.

Kevin: This question is exactly the reason that I think these things should generally be dealt with holistically rather than in the moment. “Every blown call” is obviously absurdly impractical. “None at all” is bad if it implies that you never admit any fault but, in my opinion, fine if you have appropriate channels of disseminating the information in a way that doesn’t come off as accusatory. It’s not going to serve the interests of a 24-hour news cycle but it’s just better performance management and in the end I still fail to see how the fan or the sport suffers.

Steve:  After video review by the league office, it has been determined that a butterfly in Morocco flapped its wings prior to the start of the NBA season and that the Wolves should have been in the playoffs as a result.

Kevin: Kutcher’d

Amin: Underrated movie.

And for what it’s worth, it’s not transparency if it’s intentionally piecemeal. Open is open is open. Picking events and not picking events shows bias.

I think part of the problem here is we want officiating to be objective, but it is not. And we know that, and players know that, and teams know that. But the league wants to give out this image of a right-wrong paradigm that rests upon a fulcrum of objective rule-following. But that’s not realistic. Blown calls and non-calls are part of the game, right? Why do we need to single out events or refs and say “this time, he was wrong?”

And if you are going to do it for the purposes of improving officiating quality, then pick a random sample of moments per day (calls and non calls) and rate those for accuracy.

Curtis:  If it makes y’all feel better, the founders of basketball realized immediately that referees would have a larger effect on this sport than any other. The “problems” of officiating are inherently a part of the game.

Eric: The most frustrating part about this to me is how the refs hands are tied in certain situations due to what is and isn’t reviewable per the rules.

Case in point, the NBA statement from the Warriors-Clips game said “Just prior to the ball going out-of-bounds, Paul was fouled by Green and Paul should have been granted two free throws. Contact preceding out-of-bounds calls is not a reviewable matter.” I guarantee that the refs noticed that they missed that foul call when they saw it slowed down on a review, and if they had the ability to retroactively call the foul, they would have. But because they’re limited to what they can review, they ended up having to give the ball to GS since the ball went off on Paul. They knew they messed up, but there was nothing they could do about it and they still get called out for not making the right call in a public memo the day after. That sucks.

As a lot of you have said, basketball is an insanely difficult sport to officiate, and I hate that the refs aren’t given as many avenues to make calls correct as possible, particularly in potential game deciding situations like this.

I don’t think that the answer is issuing a statement on every single call throughout the game nor is it good to not issue any statements whatsoever. I just think the refs need to be given more leeway to make sure that calls are as correct as possible in the moment.

ESPN’s Marc Stein:

Emeritus: FALSE IT IS AWESOME.

Hardwood Paroxysm

  • RefAnalytics

    I agree with all of the points made by Kevin and Amin, as well as some of those from the others. We (@RefAnalytics) have gone on the record that we think this new “transparency” of issuing statements about one bad non-call or call when there are 20 per game is pretty much useless (20 missed or wrong calls per game is the average we have calculated breaking down many games, with each game taking up to 10 hours to break down). It’s unfortunate that the league is getting complimented for this new “transparency” when it really doesn’t serve much purpose other than create a bunch of disgruntled refs as well as upset fans who still want a more comprehensive statement on all the wrong and missed calls in the game.

    The problem with the league publishing data and studies at the end of the season on the refs’ performance is that it would probably create massive problems with the referees’ union. What they are doing today on these one-off statements has probably created enough strain with the union, so doing anything more than this is problematic. Instead, we think it behooves the league and the refs to have an independent third party provide this kind of data.

    Along those lines, we have logged every referee call the past 3 seasons, and our Sloan paper this year (Google “Sloan Refs Revealed”) explains our research that shows how many NBA refs have tendencies far above and below the norm. We hope someday soon — once it’s financially viable for us, perhaps through the involvement of a visionary partner — that we will be able to make our referee statistics publicly available so fans can have full transparency. We think once this kind of data is publicly available, the more motivated referees will be to perfect their craft (kind of like what Yelp does for small businesses, RateMyProfessors does for college professors, etc.) to call violations more consistently.

    We also think our referee data will help fans understand refs’ tendencies not only when they mess up, but also when they make good decisions. Having supporting numbers to provide context can only help in the long run, similar to how we benefit today from having stats on every player.