Study reveals that NBA refs are missing way too many calls

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If you don't have at some least some sympathy for the sports official, consult your cardiologist immediately. It's not just that refs, umps and linesmen take heaps of abuse. It's the myths and misconceptions. Fans are rarely so deluded as to suggest that they could blow a fastball by Pujols or defend Kobe. But somehow every fan with a ticket or a flat screen is convinced he could call a game as well as the yutz (or worse) wearing the zebra-striped shirt.

This ignores the reality that officials are accurate -- uncannily so -- in their calls. It ignores the reality that, much like the best athletes, they've devoted years of training to their craft, developed a vast range of skills and experiences, and made it through a seemingly endless winnowing process to get to the highest level. But the officials are human beings, immune from perfect and behavioral bias. In baseball, for instance, we estimated that on average, umpires make erroneous calls only 14.4 percent of the time. Impressive especially considering the average pitch in MLB starts out at 92 mph, crosses the plate at more than 83 mph, and usually has been garnished with all sorts of spin and movement. But not perfect.

For a variety of reasons, the imperfection of NBA officials comes under particularly harsh scrutiny. Especially this time of year. There's no replay challenge. There are dozen potential calls and no-calls in every play. Yes, there is the specter of Tim Donaghy which gave some credence to the craziest of conspiracy theories. And there are few analytics. Or were, anyway.

John Ball, a Texas-based statistician, is doing some groundbreaking analysis that sheds some light on whether basketball truly has been operating too loosely all these years. He and his co-founders launched last month, just in time for the NBA playoffs, and let's just say they've been busy guys. Having analyzed calls closely over the past couple of years, Ball asserts that players get away with traveling as many as 50 times a game. And that 80 to 100 calls PER GAME are either wrong or, at a minimum, are at odds with the language in the NBA's own rule book, and that either the rules need to be enforced or changed to improve the integrity of the game. Check it out for yourself.

Here's John:

"Ever wonder how a major software package developed by hundreds of programmers becomes vulnerable to viruses all of a sudden when an enthusiast who didn't even work on it finds a weakness they overlooked somehow?

"That's what we have found with the NBA rulebook. Despite the rules being very detailed, there are major issues with a few rules that, if enforced as written, would completely shock NBA announcers, players, and even referees based on what has been allowed to pass as 'the rules.'

"There was a reason the rules were written as they are -- to prevent giving an unfair advantage to players.

"Unfortunately, many visitors to have expressed to us the same dismay we had that motivated us to launch the site, and that's this: How could the stewards of the game allow the enforcement of the rules AS WRITTEN to become almost a joke?

"Unfortunately, most NBA fans aren't even aware of these issues because 1) the rulebook isn't the most compelling piece of literature to read, and 2) what they thought were the rules from TV announcers who have been their de facto 'teachers' aren't grounded in fact.

"Just as sad, the NBA hasn't done anything to correct these announcers from these mistakes (unless they believe them, too -- yikes!) And even worse, they don't appear to have corrected the REFEREES who haven't rigorously followed the rules.

"The two major issues we have uncovered are the enforcement of traveling and blocking that we articulate in depth.

"In a nutshell, missed traveling calls have become a bigger issue through the years because many players have become adept at manipulating the ball as they complete their dribble to sneak in an extra step or half-step before taking the two steps they're allowed to take. For some reason, we've seen announcers and even NBA officials refer to this as 'the gather,' but one problem is that the word 'gather' is not in the rulebook!

"Only after you break down the rulebook and look at several provisions of what IS allowed, you find the concept of 'the gather' is not supported at all. But for some reason a loose interpretation of the rules has perpetuated, and as a result, quick and crafty players have gained a little more of an edge to help them blow by their defender and into the lane. Is that fair to the defender? Is it fair to players who follow the rules, or to former players who set records under those same rules when enforcement was more rigorous?

"The other rule that isn't enforced consistently is the idea of a defender needing to be established when an offensive player jumps into the air and makes contact with him. We've all seen replays of these block-charge calls where the announcer will say that a defender's feet 'weren't set.' Well, the rulebook doesn't have anything in it that states a defender's feet needs to be set, but gives leeway for the defender to be moving a bit. Yet NBA fans have been conditioned by announcers to look at these plays simplistically and incorrectly, thus 'dumbing down' the fans and the game.

"The game doesn't need to be dumbed down. Just enforce the rules as written, or change them. But nothing will happen unless fans and professionals associated with the game take notice that there's a vulnerability that will continue to undermine the game, similar to a virus that infects and degrades a computer's operating system.

"We invite you to checkout our full analysis of these enforcement gaps and the effect they have on the game here."