LeBron James exploded past his defender and raced towards the lane.
Serge Ibaka, the Thunder’s mountainous center, planted his feet and raised his hands straight up into the air. LeBron ducked his left shoulder and plowed right into Ibaka, who went crashing backwards into a nearby cameraman.
Maybe if it had been the first quarter. But given that this was the last minutes of a tightly fought game, the referees chose to restrain themselves, not wanting the game to turn on their actions. Was this even controversial? Not a bit. In such situations, announcers typically applaud the non-call, intoning platitudes like “this game should be decided by the players.”
In their excellent book Scorecasting, Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Woertheim explore the psychology of sports through exhaustive and yet entertaining analyses of all kinds of topics that have fueled many a heated bar stool argument.
Are referees biased against your favorite team? According to their analyses, they are biased against your team only if it is playing an away game. Turns out that their unconscious desires to please fans cause referees and umpires to back away from controversial calls that will raise the crowd’s ire.
One of the most fascinating chapters in the book involves what the authors call “whistle swallowing.” All else equal, referees and umpires avoid sins of commission over sins of omission, a preference for inactivity nicely summarized by veteran NBA referee Gary Benson: “It’s late in the game and, let’s say, there’s goal tending and you miss it. That’s an incorrect non-call and that’s bad. But let’s say it’s late in the game and you call goal tending on a play and the re-play shows it was an incorrect call. That’s when you’re in a really deep mess.”Continue reading…