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The Great NBA Referee Conspiracy
Posted By Travis Heath On April 30, 2013 @ 4:00 pm In NBA | No Comments
No one likes failing. Outcomes that are less that what we had envisioned in our minds prior to engaging in activity, even if not complete failures, can be difficult to digest. Often it is easier to deny, rationalize or in some other way distort reality to fit with our preferred vision of the world.
To a certain extent, this is normal. It helps us preserve a healthy level of ego strength. If we were to crush ourselves every time something did not go our way, it would make for an almost intolerable existence. When these sorts of defenses become problematic is when they become our characteristic way of dealing with failure or situations in which our ideal or preferred view of the world does not match reality.
In the NBA this time of year the referees serve as a perfect place for fans, writers, commentators, players and coaches to project their frustrations. This becomes a conversation complicated by the Tim Donaghy scandal. Since a former NBA referee admitted to betting on games, there is a window open through which to criticize the league. There is also just enough of a gentle breeze to fuel the fervor of conspiracy theorists.
The conspiracy theorists are in most instances laughable. However, their continuous and extreme howling creates just enough space for the everyday fan, journalist or even team employee to believe, however so slightly or unconsciously, that there might be some truth to it.
Before advancing any of these ideas further, it is important to acknowledge that referees in all sports miss calls. Inevitably, some of those missed calls will take place at key times in games. As long as human beings are in charge of this process, mistakes will never be eradicated.
With that noted, most of the criticism can be reduced to a simple phenomenon known as the self-serving bias. This bias is simple: it takes place when we attribute our success to internal factors and our failures to external ones. So for example, after we are successful at something it is a direct result of our skill level, intelligence or work ethic. However, when we fail at something it is because our boss is a jerk or we weren’t given enough time to adequately complete what was asked of us.
This bias comes out in force every year during playoff time. Perhaps the most notable example is with fans. While fans, in reality, have nothing physically to do with a team winning or losing, many identify very strongly and emotionally with the teams they root for. As such, this bias can be applied to how fans interpret why their favorite teams wins or loses a game.
A working example could be found after Friday night’s Game 3 between the Nuggets and Warriors. Some fans in Denver were quick to say the reason why the Nuggets lost the game was because the officials didn’t whistle a foul on Draymond Green as Ty Lawson drove to the basket. This led to excessive commentary about how bad officiating has been in the NBA, an external attribution for the loss.
However, in the Bay Area the attributions made were much different. Folks were talking about the greatness of Stephen Curry and the “grit” and “toughness” the team had shown with the absence of a key player in David Lee. These are internal attributions.
The self-serving bias was seen after Game 3 in more than just the fans, though. Pundits on TV and from across the Twitterverse weighed in.
Gone are the days of objective commentary, and it is important to understand the nature of this when looking for the self-serving bias in the media. With the advent of the digital age, everyone has a platform for opinion. Moreover, NBA teams now regularly credential “blogs” or websites that are openly rooting for the team since they will become essentially a conduit or mouthpiece for the narrative the organization wishes to advance. Those who don’t have a league credential and rely on getting into the building through the individual media relations department in the city in which they reside, while not necessarily overtly biased, have to be very calculated about what they say and how in order to avoid angering the wrong person and risk losing access. Trust me, I played that game for a number of years when it was much harder for a digital outlet to get into an NBA building. It would be intellectually dishonest to ignore such factors when deconstructing this argument.
The Nuggets are an especially interesting case to examine given the “superstar or no superstar” argument that has been raging for some time. Some in the media have become so wed to their position on this that the self-serving bias can be seen in how they analyzed the final play. Numerous tweets emerged within seconds stating how the problem wasn’t Lawson failing to convert like a superstar would in the waning seconds, but rather, the problem was that he didn’t get the call and superstars get that call. This is a very clear external attribution. It wasn’t the fault of Lawson or the journalist’s argument, instead it was the fault of the referees.
Imagine if Lawson had made the final shot. It’s a virtual certainty these same pundits would have pointed to this as evidence that Lawson was a true superstar or that a team without a superstar could win in the playoffs depending on which particular agenda they were trying to advance. Either would be an internal attribution for success in terms of their position. It’s highly unlikely they would have stated that Lawson simply got lucky or the Warriors let down on defense. Furthermore, if Lawson had gotten the call it’s not likely that many would have pointed to this as evidence that he was a true superstar.
Writers can write whatever they want. That’s the beauty of the digital space. However, when they advance whatever agendas they might have on particular positions by blaming the referees, it only adds to a growing narrative, even if unintentionally, that the league’s referees are dirty.
If that is the true belief, writers have a much important story to write than what team won a particular playoff game because the playoffs as a whole are no longer valid. Through this lens, at worst, the league’s referees are dirty and potentially on the take. At best, they are incompetent, which is still a major problem and the league’s policy for hiring officials should be exhaustively inquired about and written up for public consumption.
My take? The referees generally do a good, albeit not perfect, job. When teams that win it all and the commentators, writers and fans who support those teams start consistently talking about how poorly the officiating has been in the series they just won and point to this as the primary reason why they won the series, then you’ll have my attention. If the officiating was really as poor as some make it out to be, the winning team wouldn’t be able to take any pride in winning knowing that it was so poor.
The beauty of a seven-game series is the best team almost always wins. Some bad calls along the way are a part of every team’s journey. The truly great teams overcome those missed calls in large part because they are simply better than the team they are playing.
Would anyone propose that the Miami HEAT didn’t have a single call go against it in the first round against Milwaukee? Of course not, there were plenty. It’s just that Miami is clearly the better team. One could advance the argument that in a series where the teams are more closely matched, a missed call means more. While that’s true, again the brilliance of a seven-game series is illuminated.
William of Ockham once proposed the law of parsimony, or the idea that the best explanation is that which explains a given phenomenon using the fewest assumptions and raises the fewest number of additional questions. Using this line of logic, ask yourself: what’s more likely?
1. There is a system at play hidden by the league and executed by the referees dictating the league’s winners and losers out to sabotage your favorite team (or the position a given writer or pundit believes to be true about the league and how a team can win in it).
2. Sometimes the referees miss calls and they do so for all teams in the playoffs.
It’s clear the second option operates under fewer assumptions and raises far fewer questions than the first. While it might feel good to point the finger at the referees after a difficult loss, doing so is to deny simpler or much more rational explanations such as: perhaps your favorite team wasn’t good enough that night.
A coach of mine once told me that great teams do not put themselves in a position where the referees can decide the outcome of a game. For a league that uses so much “tough guy” rhetoric, it is surprising that so few teams exhibit the mental toughness and self-awareness to admit as much.
Dr. Travis Heath is a psychologist in private practice and an assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver. He has served as a team consultant in the NBA. He also co-hosts a show on Mile High Sports Radio weeknights from 6-8 p.m. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTravisHeath.
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