Are there bad refs?
For as long as I can remember, I have always simultaneously admired and despised the neutral referee that keeps control of a game.
For them not to get caught up in the action, cheering for the underdog, correcting players’ errors as a coach would, I admired them.
For their inconsistency in calling or not making calls when I thought they should have, I despised them — though I never actually earned a technical foul, either as a player or as a coach. (It was probably because I never mentioned their mothers.)
I have been frustrated in my attempts to understand the ref’s role in the game. How do you analyze a neutral contributor to the game?
I could look at whether they truly were neutral, whether they called an equal number of fouls on different classes of players or teams;
but that was flawed because different teams and different players clearly did commit different numbers of fouls.
I couldn’t come up with a way to identify classes of teams or individuals that “should” receive the same number of fouls.
Finally I’ve figured out how to do it. Now I know how to strike back at the refs, to let them know how they can change the odds of winning or losing if they are doing a bad job.
I finally figured out what it means for a ref to do a bad job.
A bad ref is an inconsistent ref. A terrible ref is a biased ref. I’m interested in just the bad refs and really hope that the terrible ones are kept from being refs by the professionals concerned with their standards.
An inconsistent ref can change the odds of a game by introducing extra noise into the game.
One of the things that always kept me in good favor with refs was that I told them that they didn’t make as many mistakes as the players did. Players miss shots, commit turnovers,
pass to the wrong player, hold on to the ball too long, and foul other players.
All a ref does is occasionally miss a call or make a call that changes what should have been the outcome of the play, sometimes permitting a player to get away with a takedown and ever so rarely whistling for a foul that “everybody knows” he didn’t commit.
Everyone in the game is inconsistent, but the players are more inconsistent than the refs.
We know how players’ inconsistencies and errors affect the game, but how specifically does a referee error affect the score?
A ref’s error alters whether a score actually goes up on the scoreboard. This is an assumption for simplicity, but not a bad one.
For instance, a ref can miss a travelling call and a team gets a score they shouldn’t get or a ref can miss a defensive foul and a team doesn’t get a score they should get.
With just this simple rule and without introducing any bias in those errors, although “it all balances out in the long run”, inconsistency changes the odds of one team winning over another.
If refs show a little favoritism for home teams and for great players, they are essentially aiding favorites, which they hurt by being inconsistent.
That was the most interesting thing (to me) that came out of this study.
Let me repeat that: a ref that shows some bias for home teams and for better players counters the inherent favoritism to weaker teams caused simply by being human.
Is this a small part of the game? Yes it is and I believe that introducing more reality into the simulations would dilute the ref’s influence a little further.
For the most part, it is the timing of inconsistency that gets a ref noticed, not the frequency. Unfortunately, this can afflict even good refs and there isn’t much anyone can do about that.