There are times at the end of an NCAA basketball tournament game when I not only want the ref to swallow the whistle; I’d like to garrote him with the cord. Then again, it’s just as aggravating when a ref refuses to call anything down the stretch, and by omission settles a game. Which is better, fairer? A dead-silent whistle or a shrieking intrusion?
We argue this issue annually, each time someone in a zebra-striped shirt makes a late call that swings a final score one way or the other. Last weekend a couple of seemingly ticky-tack lane violations helped decide the outcomes of two games, Xavier’s 67-63 win over Notre Dame, and UNC Asheville’s failed bid to upset Syracuse, 72-65. Something similar will probably happen again this weekend. Charles Barkley summed up how a lot of people feel about officiating intrusions from his analyst’s chair on TNT.
“My head is going to explode,” he said. “Man, these referees are killing me. You cannot call those calls with the game on the line.”
It’s an uneasy supposition: A rule is a rule early in the game, but when it’s late, especially inside the two-minute mark, refs should overlook minor infractions and “let the players play.” Most of us share this murky sentiment, though we don’t really know why and feel half-guilty about it. But University of Texas law professor Mitch Berman has set out to explain and justify it, by applying legal theory. In an article for the Georgetown Law Journal entitled “Let Em Play: A Study in the Jurisprudence of Sports,” Berman asks why we incline toward what he calls “temporal variance.”
“Why should the optimal degree of laxity differ in crunch time? Why ‘let them play’ at this particular time?” he said.
Berman contends that organized games are really legal systems. When we consider the NCAA tournament that way, it clarifies what we’re really after with temporal variance: justice.
“My project was to figure out what could be said in favor of it,” he says. “I started with this instinct that says it seems sort of right. But it wasn’t obvious, to put it mildly, what reason or evidence could support that view.”
In the 2011 book “Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won,” economist Tobias Moskowitz and sportswriter L. Jon Wertheim argued that we show a subtle but powerful “omission bias” in how we want final scores determined. We tend to prefer outcomes determined by a ref’s omission — a failure to blow the whistle — because we tell ourselves that inactions are less blameworthy than actions. We’ve incorporated this bias on an outright systemic bias by congratulating refs for “no-calls.”
But is this gut preference legitimate and fair? Berman takes the argument one step further and says yes. One rationale for it is aesthetic: We don’t want a bunch of whistles halting the flow of play, which is irritating during moments of high drama. Also, we want excellence to determine the score, not luck. But more importantly, we sense that as time wears on in a game, the impact of a penalty changes.