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.