Thugs and the NBA

by Russ Roberts on May 23, 2006

in Complexity & Emergence, Sports

I did not see any of the basketball games last night, but I heard that the Spurs rallied from something like a 17 point deficit and then lost in overtime to the Mavs.

The local sports radio station, WTEM, 980 had an interesting discussion between the two hosts, Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin. Czaban asked Pollin why a big lead in the NBA often gets turned around into a nail-biter. Pollin gave the standard answers that the shot clock allows more possessions, three-pointers let a team score quickly, a team gets complacent when it’s ahead and a team gets desperate when it’s down.

Czaban’s claim was that the refs make sure that the team that’s behind gets the benefit of the doubt when there’s a close call. He then proceeded to document all the bad calls that went against Dallas and in favor of San Antonio. He emphasized that it wasn’t a conspiracy on the part of the league to rig games. It was simply that referees who made the calls in favor of the team that’s behind get chosen to referee in the future. He was also clear to emphasize that nail-biters don’t happen every night–just because the referees try to keep the game close doesn’t mean they can. This latter claim removes most of the empirical content from the hypothesis but not all of it. A careful study of videotape would be able to tell you whether referees are consistent throughout the game independent of the score.

What I like about the hypothesis is that it mirrors my hypothesis of how a thugocracy such as Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union is sustained. There’s no such thing as an absolute dictator. Hitler didn’t "run" Nazi Germany. The span of control was too great. So how do you keep people in line? You reward people who brutalize others. You don’t need a memo telling people to brutalize others. You set up the carrots and sticks so that there’s an incentive to be cruel.

So the NBA is like Nazi Germany. OK, not really. But the point is that subtle forms of incentives can steer behavior without explicit orders. Czaban isn’t saying that the NBA is like professional wrestling because the whole thing is choreographed. It doesn’t have to be choreographed.

One response to Czaban’s claim is so what. It’s entertainment. We like close games. So what’s the big deal?

I have a different response. Fouls in basketball are essentially arbitrary and subjective. That inherently reduces the appeal of the game. But rather than try and improve the refs through some objective standard or monitor them with something akin to an electronic strike zone, why not simply get rid of them?

Get rid of the refs and let the players make the calls.

Would a game without referees degenerate into violence?

The experiment is run every day on the playgrounds and gyms of America. Fouls are self-monitored. The players call the fouls. If you call your opponent for a cheap foul, you get a reputation for being a baby. If you foul constantly, you get a reputation for being a thug. These two reputational forces keep violence in check. Would they work in the NBA where so much money is at stake?

I’m not sure. Maybe not. But some level of fouling would emerge from self-enforced games that would probably be different from what the NBA is like now. The game might be more physical. It might be less physical.

One problem with my idea is that you’d presume that the league has an incentive to create the level of fouling that is consistent with maximizing fan interest. And because fans like close games, the current system is optimal. Maybe. But there’s no residual claimant for league profits. Maybe the Commissioner is rewarded implicitly when the game is popular and punished when it is not, so he has the right incentives to choose the right level of fouling.

There’s also the problem that in a close game in a playoff final, the reputational incentives might be totally overwhelmed by the amount of money at stake.

So here’s another idea. Let the coaches call the fouls. Give them ten fouls per half. It would speed up the game. And to keep coaches from calling non-fouls, fouls, let the refs have the ability to override the calls via video. What would emerge? I have no idea. I’d presume it would be a very different game and one that isn’t as interesting to watch as the current game of NBA basketball. But it makes for an interesting thought-experiment about how norms emerge.

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Jacko May 23, 2006 at 12:32 pm

I like your approach. Let's take a slightly altered version of it to another arena where the perceive benefit of third parties does not work nearly as well as we hoped; the jury system.

Let's choose juries that actually know the defendant: teachers, employers, fellow workers, etc. Perhaps we would exclude friends. Leave the sentencing to the judge. I think it would work.

The implications on our society before, during and after the trial are interesting to ponder.

Chris May 23, 2006 at 1:09 pm

Arbitrarily giving each coach 10 fouls would likely increase the number of fouls per game since there was no penalty for the 10+ foul. Make the first 10 obvious then everything is fair game.

Sounds like a sure fire way to make the game more physical. I like the idea of challeging the necessity of refs (to a degree) though. I think, in generaly, they probably do more harm than good.

Doug Murray May 23, 2006 at 1:44 pm

I like the idea of letting coaches call fouls, but would offer a twist.

Instead, allow them 5 'bad calls' to call fouls or challenge officials' calls. If the coach is over-ruled, he loses one, but if he is upheld he gets to keep his bad to use again.

Maybe 5 would be too many, but it would overcome Chris's objection.

Morgan May 23, 2006 at 3:31 pm

I can't watch basketball precisely because of the fouls. Constant fouls. Especially at the end of games.

I've been saying for years that it would be a better game if the players wore pads and the only foul was unnecessary roughness.

So far, no one is listening.

MjrMjr May 23, 2006 at 4:41 pm

My aversion to televised basketball is the same as Morgan's. I can't stand the last two minutes of the game taking half an hour due to fouling. Maybe for some viewers this raises the level of excitement and suspense. For me it's just frustrating.

I work out at a gym that has two full sized basketball courts. In the evenings one court is "anyone can do whatever they want" and the other court is used by men for full court pickup games. The level of play can range from so-so to quite competitive. Some of the guys that play there are really amazing athletes. Anyhow, fouls are called exactly as Russell describes. The offensive player calls the foul on the defender. No freethrows are shot; the team that was fouled gets to inbound the ball at half court. This system generally works. People don't tend to call fouls too much. Those who do get a reputiation as, well, something not polite to mention in print. The only downside is occasionally there's a lot of time spent arguing fouls, particularly in the more competitive games. I don't think this would translate well to TV.

My solution for the NBA would be that every foul in the last two minutes automatically gives the other team two points. This would reduce fouling and speed up the game. Advertisers wouldn't like it. It would do nothing to address the arbitrary nature of foul calls during the majority of the game. I like some of the other suggestions that people have made.

Steven M. Warshawsky May 23, 2006 at 4:55 pm

Ridiculous ideas. Has anyone here ever played pick-up basketball? Well, if you have, you would know that the calling of fouls is one of the most annoying and arbitrary aspects of the game — and that bigger, meaner players take advantage of the good will of others by calling ticky-tack fouls every time they miss a shot. People who play "call your own fouls" basketball rejoice when they can play organized b-ball with real refs. Are the refs perfect? Of course not. No "police" officers ever are. But they are best solution available.

blink May 23, 2006 at 8:58 pm

Officiating in the NBA seems analogous to public education. NBA referees appear beholden to a misaligned incentive system, similar to the system public school teachers face – and the quality of their work supports this. With schools, the solution has been heralded for some time: let students choose their teachers (or, more typically, let parents choose their children’s schools). So, for the NBA I suggest that we let the coaches (or teams) choose their referees. Transaction costs may rise since coaches must agree, but these can be minimized. As a first step, let each team black-list a specified number of referees and work up from there. With better aligned incentives, referees will quickly move toward the optimal level of foul-calling.

Can coaches call fouls? Yes, just as parents can home-school their children, but there is little reason to believe that they have a special competence in this area. I want my team’s coach to focus on his specialty: coaching basketball. My proposal allows us to reap the benefits of specialization in both cases, without the distorted incentives inherent in the present system.

TW May 24, 2006 at 10:58 am

The Mavericks actually blew a 20-point lead in the first half before winning in overtime, but my squabble is not with the difference between 17 and 20. It's with the proposed idea that coaches should be able to call fouls.

Using the 1st quarter of Game 7 of the Dallas-San Antonio series, here's why it absolutely won't work:

11:59 – Avery Johnson (AJ) calls a foul on Tim Duncan for pushing off after the jump ball.

11:56 – Greg Popovich (GP) calls an offensive foul on Dirk Nowitski for pushing off down in the low post.

11:53 – AJ calls a foul on Duncan for pushing off.

11:50 – GP calls a foul on Nowitski for pushing off.

And so it goes until each of the opposing coach has fouled out the other team's superstar. The fact that none of the replays actually showed a foul won't matter, because each coach has a huge incentive to get the other team's superstar out of the game as quickly as possible.

Anticipating the argument that coaches won't do this tactic because they don't want their own superstar treated in this manner, one coach will always perceive his team as either having the inferior superstar or as having a deeper bench, so one of the coaches will always have an incentive to pursue this tactic.

As for the Fox Sports Radio discussion, it's a very weak argument because otherwise we'd see close contests in every Game 7…in every playoff game, for that matter. But we didn't see that in Game 7 of Cleveland-Detroit or certainly LA-Phoenix. Fox will have to produce a thorough study that shows a strong correlation between free throw/foul/turnover disparity and big leads in a game to sway me on this.

What I will certainly admit to is a bias by the NBA referees in favor of its superstar players. Michael Jordan didn't get called for traveling when he slid his pivot foot, but Josh Howard certainly does. Tim Duncan doesn't get called for the "swim move" in knocking defenders' hands away from his backside, but Michael Olowakandi does. And you can argue that this comes down to entertainment because the NBA and its TV partners want the superstars on the court in crunch time to drive ratings.

Joe Calhoun May 24, 2006 at 11:47 am

I played Ultimate (a Frisbee game akin to soccer) back before I became old and decrepit. The players were incredibly competitive and all fouls were called by players. There were disagreements, but overall it worked pretty well. Some players got reputations for calling unnecessary fouls, but overall everyone's competitiveness meant that they didn't want that reputation.

I love basketball despite the fouls and lousy refs. Frankly, I think the refs do a good job in a difficult environment. As for their bias for the team that is behind, it appears to me that they are biased against the Miami Heat no matter the score. Or maybe that's just my bias….

Timothy May 24, 2006 at 11:59 am

I've noticed a similar thing with NHL hockey, actually. The "new NHL" won't let players get away with nearly as much as they used to: things that didn't used to be hooking are hooking, things that weren't tripping are tripping. It adds more power plays to the game, but can slow things down in the course of calling the penalties.

Chris May 24, 2006 at 1:51 pm

I used to listen to Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin before I moved from DC to Seattle. Czaban has one of the worst sports minds I've ever been exposed to. Basically, his role is to say the stupid, home-towner man-on-the-street stuff, while Pollin's role is the steady, reasonable, professional sports broadcaster.

That being said, I do think your self-officiating idea is interesting. Not that I think it would be a better outcome, but it's interesting to think about how the outcome might be different.

Orphan Cow May 24, 2006 at 5:27 pm

I was happy to see the comment about Ultimate Frisbee because it provides an excellent example of what happens if you allow players to call their own fouls. Over the years, Ultimate has become increasingly competitive and, correspondingly, there has been an increase in discussions to have refs because the strategy of the game has changed significantly. The best ultimate teams in the nation take full advantage of being able to call their own fouls to a point that it becomes an important strategy of the game. There are times you "should" call a foul even if one is not committed because it gives you the best opportunity to win under that framework. Ideally, the game flow of ultimate would be similar to soccer with few interruptions and continuous movement, but among the elite teams, it resembles rush hour traffic. Thus, the unintended consequence of allowing players to call their own fouls is that the very dynamics that make Ultimate exciting are compromised. No matter who calls the fouls or how they are punished you create a dominate strategy… For instance, in the NBA now you try to foul Shaq or Ben Wallace or whoever the worst free throw shooter on the floor is because that gives you the best chance to win.

TW May 25, 2006 at 10:22 am

Reading Russ' comments about the NBA got me to thinking about two interesting areas that would lend themselves to a study:

* Before the NBA Draft Lottery was instituted, the team with the worst record "earned" the #1 pick (they may have had a coin flip between the two worst teams in each conference–it's been too many years to remember for sure). NBA officials say they wanted to prevent teams from losing on purpose to get that #1 pick, so they created the lottery, which gives each non-playoff team a chance at the #1 pick (the worst teams have the best chance, and only the Top 3 picks are determined by the lottery). In the opinion of most fans, the lottery has actually increased the number of teams losing on purpose because more teams now have a better shot at the #1 pick. If you know you're out of the playoffs, why not lose more games to get a better chance to be able to draft a LeBron James or a Tim Duncan? Certainly this could fall under 'The Law of Unintended Consequences.'

* The other area is a bit tougher to explain, but I'll try. The NBA has a salary cap that contains a "max out" contract that basically sets the maximum that any one player can earn per season. That in effect caps the revenue a player can earn from his salary, and these are usually long-term, guaranteed contracts…so the parameters are set in stone, if you will. It seems to me, therefore, that players have a huge incentive to focus on the sponsorship/endorsement revenue side of the equation because that is the only thing the player can affect. So focusing on fundamentals falls by the wayside as players have an incentive to stand out from everybody else: Get on SportsCenter with flashy dunks…attempt wacky passes to try to make highlight reels…develop weird hair styles…get tattoos…wear tights and other different-looking body coverings. In short, devote a great deal of time to areas that don't really make the team better. Another potential nominee for the 'Law of Unintended Consequences?'

SAN May 28, 2006 at 12:07 pm

As an amateur ref for a different sport, self-calling only works to a point. At a playground the ultimate goal is fun. So cheating removes some of this fun, so you have a reinforcing mechanism where the other players will exile the offending player. I've seen this in adult pick-up games as well.

At the professional level, you have money, ego, and prestige on the line. Other players cannot "exile" an offending player, and often they are playing right at the line of legal/illegal. So refs are a necessary part of the game. As far as statistics go, you should be able to do a reasonable statistical analysis by taking the average fouls by a team for a season (the team's tendacies), the opponent's fouling patterns, and then analyze when they are called compared to the score. You'd also need to factor in whether any "star" biases exist – do you star players get called in the same way as a marginal bench player.

SAN May 28, 2006 at 12:16 pm

If you truly want to make North American sports truly "Capitalistic", then you would want to adopt the European soccer system. I'll use the English Premier League as an example. In the UK, all "affiliated" (official) leagues are tiered from the EPL at the very top with 30,000 fans to some completely amateur leagues playing in one small area and having 100 fans on a good day at the bottom. If you do well (come in #1, possibly 2rd or 3rd depending on the level), you get promoted to the next level (some other qualifications exist such as stadium size and safety). You can theoretically get to the very top in about 8 to 9 years. If you are in the bottom 1 to 3, you get relegated. So truly terrible teams (historically) like the Raptors wouldn't be shooting for a #1 draft pick. They'd be playing in the development league. And a successful team in that league would get a shot at the "big league".

While it isn't feasible given the fact that most "minor" leagues are either not compatible with or are owned by the "professional" league, it is something to consider. It makes the battle of the cellar dwellers very compelling. Especially in baseball where some teams don't seem to even bother trying to compete. Give those ownership groups a reason to try to win – if you come in at the bottom, you become a Triple A team with a token TV revenue.

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