Increasingly sophisticated data and vocal fans helped unrig the system
This was a well-written and enjoyable article. It’s nice to get hear about something a bit random like this from time to time.
I loved the stats across different sports. The most amazing thing is that the home field advantage appears smallest in baseball. In baseball, unlike other sports, the rules literally favor the home team (batting last lets you know if you need one or more runs and to adjust tactics accordingly). Baseball also has non-standard fields which allows for (1) local knowledge of unique aspects, and (2) tailoring a team with character that best fit the park.
Referee bias sounds like it was great for fans for the same reason it was great for the NBA, and it only became not great when they were given the tools to know about it.
Now they fixed it and everyone is worse off. Absolutely fair games aren’t really beneficial overall.
Glad to see someone is picking up the torch for fivethirtyeight. It wasn’t on my favorite subject, but the research and arguments were so compelling I read to the end.
We need to get a sports-related post from Maya each week.
"This Bodnick woman knows the game, 'Bron! She called us the Shaq and Kobe of the 2020s! The Michael Jordans of the present era!"
"Read it again, Steph: she said 2010s. Not 2020s. And not a typo."
"2010s? That's just...cold. Why do these young kids have to be so cold?"
"She knows the game, Steph. And I know when the game's over. It's over when you started complaining about the young kids outplaying you."
Outstanding introductory article, Maya!
One of the most frustrating things I deal with in interaction with fellow sports fans (interactions that are mostly positive, because people who watch sports are pretty great people overall) is the domination of conspiracy theory believing that goes on when a call doesn't go the way of the team they want to win. Far too many seem utterly convinced that there's some scheming puppeteering going on in the most upper annals of league executive offices to rig games for whatever fans believe is their sinister motive. This was an elegant way to explain how problems we see with officiating have a less sexier answer: they're humans that like any other are flawed, and let their flaws seep in when not checked and verified. I'm going to keep this article in mind when conspiracy theorizing is going on.
In addition to what you've added, two other thoughts as to how to continue to improve officiating:
--In the vein of another Slow Boring theme, automate as much officiating as possible. Some rules are heavily judgment calls where this might not be possible, but things like crossing an out of bounds or offside line, verifying 2 pointers vs 3 pointers, and so on, are clearer. Above all, I for one would welcome new strike zone overlords to baseball, and it would get rid of a lot of arguments in that game.
--Implement a sky judge as an additional check against biases officials on the field may have that can see the whole court from above, and also has the benefit of instant replay to look things over after the heat of the moment of play, and relay any feasible corrections down to the officials on the floor. This I think has the best potential in a sport like football, where there's regularly plenty of time after each play to review and digest what happened, and make corrections as appropriate.
I’m still upset about just the number of foul calls overall. High-scoring games can be fun but things have swung too far in favor of offense. Let them play more, give defenders a chance, and do something about the calls that allow offensive players to bait defenders into shooting attempt fouls when they are not realistically in shooting position/have actual shots.
Just one quibble: you can’t compare changes in home team advantage in the playoffs without taking into account the relative strength of the two teams, because more games will be played on the court of the higher seed. The disparity in strength can vary by season because of differences in general competitiveness across the league. In a season where there are some very strong teams and below .500 teams are making the playoffs, the home court advantage will be larger than a season where teams are more evenly balanced
Congrats on your first column. Nice work!
Having said that...
“The data is clear: referee bias is the number one cause of the home-court advantage.”
Whooooaaaaahhhh....slow down, Turbo! Sorry, but I don’t think you (or the research and stats you’ve cited) have in any way made this case.
I will absolutely concede that superstar bias is real (although as a Mavericks fan, I wonder how this works with superstar mega-whiners like our beloved Luka Doncic), but seems to me you’re totally dismissing other - more likely, in fact - possibilities that explain the home-court and come-from-behind advantages: that teams play harder and smarter for their own fans and they play harder and smarter when they’re trailing...
Why is it refs worry about getting screamed at by hostile hometown fans, but the same anti or pro hollering doesn’t impact the players themselves?
The idea that play shouldn’t vary because ‘arenas are standardized’ is baloney! What the hell foes standardized mean? This isn’t baseball - the court is the same, but sight lines, lighting, music, smells, altitude, locker rooms, arena logistics, security guards, parking lots...I admit that big American cities are homogenized, but - in the words of Robert Plant - never let’em tell you that they’re all the same. To me it is intuitive that any team playing 50% of games in a single venue and the other half scattered among 29 other barns will gain a level of comfort with the most frequent setting.
As for come-from-behind bias - isn’t a more likely explanation a simple reversion to the mean? The Kindergarten version is: teams fall behind because their opponent shoots unusually well, or because they shoot unusually poorly...but over the course of a game the hot teams cool and the cool teams heat up.
At any rate - basketball is a talkin’ sport, and I’m sure the discussion will be lively.
After the college women’s final, the Athletic / NYT ran an article decrying foul calls on the star players. It does make the game less watchable and that article implies refs in men’s basketball know to go easy on superstars in big games. https://theathletic.com/4377949/2023/04/03/womens-basketball-officials-clark-reese/
This piece definitely contains some interesting information.
However, NBA refereeing is still in a place where many engaged fans view the games as being openly rigged. There are still refs who were involved in the gambling scandal that are refing. Scott Foster has the nickname "The Extender" because of the belief that the NBA deploys him to extend playoff series.
The point being is that the officiating in the NBA is bad to the point that conspiracy theories are pretty mainstream among fans.
One thing to note is that much of the piece focuses on bias officiating rather than just poor officiating. This makes sense because it is seems more possible from a data angle to see if something is bias than if it is simply a bad call.
Regarding the L2M report, in my experience these to little to quell fans anger or distrust of the refs. I believe the NBA says they review the whole game in a similar way but only release the 2 min version. It also allows the refs to appear more bias when they do things like apologize to the Lakers.
Also, I believe both Lebron and Curry actaully shoot very few fouls relative to their stature in the league. Curry possibly because of his shot selection, Lebron perhaps because of his size. These two are perhaps not the best example of people who get superstar calls. (Foul baiting aside, Embid, Luka, Giannis, Trae)
One interesting bias to look at might be size bias. I believe it was found in soccer that larger players were officiated more harshly but it a common complaint that big men are allow to be fouled quite hard without calls which sometimes encourages flopping, see Embid. Jokic being a pasty White makes it easy to see how beat up his arms are after games.
In the 2nd to last paragraph, "he NBA claimed that it hadn’t made any policy changes related to racism bias"
Is "racism bias" meant to be "racial bias"
Great article on a topic near and dear to my heart!
What a fantastic article!
Good article! I agree completely. I’m more of a baseball fan than basketball, but enjoy all sports. The increased transparency and accountability caused by improved broadcasting technologies and the internet have improved tall sports. For example, I love the “ump scorecard” on Twitter. Automation is the answer, where you can do it. They need to implement it wherever they can. VAR has made offsides calls in soccer almost completely objective. Baseball needs to follow suit with ball/strike calls. I’d love to see this level of transparency and accountability in our public and private institutions. It works. And, if you do it right, people will compete with each other to be the least biased and/or most compliant. Humans are naturally biased, but they also are naturally competitive. That’s why we love sports so much. Creating a fair playing field focuses our attention on competing.
As this is more of a political/policy Substack, if we think of the media as referees, what are some things we might expect to boost ratings due to more interest or as a result of natural root-for-the-underdog tendencies or wanting to be entertained/engaged? An incumbent President has a big advantage, so we might expect to see:
1. more emphasis on polls showing the President is in trouble due to negative favorability
2. emphasis on any poll showing a strong primary challenger to the President or movement in that direction
3. emphasis on polls showing the challenging party having a close race, or any move in that direction
4. more negative coverage of whoever is in the lead in every stage
5. a desire for more debates, and speculation about VPs and brokered convention scenarios, even though a VP has not been replaced since 1944, and before that, 1864, and we have not had a brokered convention in the primary election era (since 1970s)
Are there others, and does reality reflect this?