Monday, March 25, 2013

The Human Element

Big fun around here over the last few days watching the first couple of rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament play out. The weekend in particular presented a number of nail-biters that made for consistently exciting viewing, even if my beloved UNC Tarheels folded (so to speak) under the pressure during the second half versus Kansas yesterday to end their season.

Like many of you, I am, of course, busily studying my bracket, drawing circles around the correct picks and crosses through the one’s I’ve missed as each game concludes. Out of sheer stubbornness I picked UNC over Kansas yesterday, and with similar, irrational motivation I also picked Creighton over Duke. (Two crosses there.)

Was kind of a mediocre showing overall for me as I only ended up getting eight of the Sweet Sixteen correct, but hope remains as seven of my Elite Eight are still alive as are all four of my Final Four picks. After what happened last year when I found myself in a similar spot, I am necessarily full of optimism.

I probably wouldn’t be so cheery, though, if not for a couple of lucky breaks yesterday. I’m referring specifically to the Ohio-State-Iowa State game and the Miami-Illinois game, both of which came down to the wire. And, as it happened, both of which featured somewhat controversial referees’ calls near the end that did factor into the results.

I happen to have picked Miami to beat Ohio State in the finals in my bracket -- an outcome that today seems somewhat unlikely -- so obviously I wasn’t displeased to see both teams survive their scares yesterday to advance, if only to allow me a few more days of believing I still have a chance in the pool. Perhaps, then, I’m a little biased in my response to what I’m referring to as those “controversial” calls from yesterday, but even so, I think way too much has already been made of both of them.

Michael, author of the crAAKKer blog (a.k.a. Grange95), actually wrote a post yesterday afternoon -- “Don’t Kill the Refs” -- about the earlier one occurring in the Ohio State-Iowa State game. It was one of those charge-block calls that went Ohio State’s way, negating an Iowa State basket and most certainly helping keep the door open for the Buckeyes eventually to prevail.

Michael makes the point that it’s a mistake to promote a single referee’s call to such a level of significance that it utterly eclipses the other hundreds of plays that happen in a game. In truth, while super slo-mo replays seemed to provide evidence supporting the arguments of those who believed the call was incorrect, in real time it was much less obvious which way the call should have went.

Later in the evening there was a more obvious mistake made near the end of the Miami-Illinois game. With less than a minute to go, Illinois had the ball down by 2 and after missing a shot it appeared as though the ball went off a Miami player out of bounds under the Illinois basket. But the refs said it had gone off the Illinois player and awarded the ball to Miami, who then hit their free throws and hung on to win 63-59.

In this case the call was more obviously incorrect -- even in real time it looked like the refs missed it -- and perhaps more directly affected the outcome of the game than happened with the OSU-ISU charge-block call (after which several more game-determining plays occurred). Even so, Michael’s point about it being wrong to assign too much significance to a single call still holds here. The missed call was most certainly part of the story of the game, but so was Illinois guard D.J. Richardson’s 1-for-11 shooting night and Rion Brown scoring 21 off the Miami bench and many other factors that affected the outcome.

I liked the response of Illinois head coach John Groce afterwards, who when asked in the post-game presser about the call had this to say:

“You saw the same video that I did. Those guys did a good job though. They did. It’s a hard game to officiate, it’s both teams [being] physical, both teams desiring the same thing. 50/50 calls are hard sometimes. That’s how he saw the play in life speed, and certainly respect him and respect the call that he made.”

The fact is, there’s a human element when it comes to sports and games that I think is becoming less and less appreciated as time goes on. There are several possible causes for this trend, with advances in technology and an increasingly litigious society springing to mind as two of the more obvious ones.

I was complaining a little about this trend last fall when posting about that infamous, botched call at the end of the Packers-Seahawks game -- you remember, the game that ended with that “Fail Mary” play in which we might reasonably say a referee’s decision really did determine the outcome of a game. I mentioned in that post how while watching NFL games I’d begun “to temper all responses to plays, delaying my reaction as I waited to see whether or not what I had just seen would be called back, or a ruling would be revised, or a challenge would be upheld, and so on.”

That hesitant feeling was amplified by during those first three weeks of the NFL season when the replacement refs were making lots of mistakes and also (not coincidentally) overturning an inordinate number of calls. But even when the refs are doing a reasonably fine job, I think most of us experience sports much differently today than was the case prior to the introduction of instant replay and all of the other mechanisms by which plays made by players (and calls made by referees and umpires) can get reinterpreted afterwards.

To make a poker connection (here on my poker blog), I’m reminded of that hand near the end of the WPT Bay 101 Shooting Star earlier this month in which Paul Volpe was eliminated in third place.

Prior to the hand, the dealer made a mistake and moved the button two spots rather than one, putting Volpe in the small blind rather than the big blind where he was dealt QhTh with which he open-pushed all in. His opponent, Kai Chang, called from the big blind with Ac9c, and Chang won the hand. If the button had been placed correctly, Volpe would’ve been dealt Chang’s hand, the third player (Joe Nguyen) would’ve been dealt Volpe’s hand, and thus the outcome might have been different.

Again, there were thousands of actions leading up to this hand that affected how the tournament had gone and would potentially go, but some wanted to highlight the dealer’s mistake as having a kind of ultimate significance here.

Allen “Chainsaw” Kessler even started another one of his many Two Plus Two threads to discuss the hand -- “Wow paul volpe eliminated on misdeal at Bay 101” -- his alarmist title suggesting that Volpe somehow was the victim of unfairness and/or was not to blame for his elimination. That is to say, that Volpe was knocked out not because of anything he did, but because of what might be regarded as the equivalent of a ref’s bad call.

Posters responding to Kessler’s original post pointed out (1) the players didn’t speak up (and in fact, Volpe got to skip his big blind because of the mistake), and (2) in live poker, dealers make mistakes sometimes (“just another form of variance,” said one). And Volpe himself -- perhaps sounding a little like the magnanimous Illinois coach -- tweeted afterwards that while it was indeed a mistake, “im over it tho!!!woot.”

Sports bettors mostly understand how the referees -- being human -- introduce a “form of variance” that has something to do with how games will go. The more rational among them accept that as “part of the game.” And I think those of us who fill out NCAA brackets and thus find ourselves on the edge of our seats cheering or crying at a ref’s endgame call mostly accept that fact, too.

That said, if the refs knock out Miami or Ohio State before the finals, I’m gonna be pissed!

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Blogger Grange95 said...

The Iowa St.-Ohio St. game had roughly 180 total offensive possessions, while the Illinois-Miami game had roughly 195 possessions (take FGA+3PA+ (1/2 FTA)+TO for each team to get total offensive possessions). To claim that one or two referee's calls on one or two possessions out of 180-195 possessions "decided" the game is folly. There's no question bad calls happen, and they have an impact on the game. But those calls generally are not determinative of the outcome of the game.

Of course, as fans, we know the refs screwed us.

3/25/2013 11:51 PM  

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