Swallowing the Whistle

Stevens wanted the ball in Hayward’s hands. Twice during the season—against UCLA and Detroit—Hayward had been fouled at the finish and saved games by making free throws. Not that Butler’s coach expected a reprise of those scenarios.

“I didn’t think they’d call a foul,” Stevens said. “My thought was, ‘Shoot a pull-up if you have it.’ You would just have to get creamed in the national championship game to get a foul call.”

—Butler basketball coach Brad Stevens as quoted in David Woods’ book Underdawgs

Let the players decide the game. It’s a phrase we hear often from coaches, fans, announcers, and players themselves. Referees are criticized for blowing the whistle in the final moments of a close game—they are accused of “making it about them.”

How is a ref calling a legitimate penalty in the final seconds wrong? He is letting the players decide—it was a player who committed the infraction. It’s the ref’s job to call it.

I was reminded that many disagree with me when Florida State beat Notre Dame after an Irish touchdown was nullified by a penalty. To be fair, many thought the call was bogus simply because it was an incorrect call, while others thought the play had gone unpunished earlier in the game. I won’t argue with those people. I will with those who cried, “You can’t throw a flag in that situation!”

My friend Lee is a youth basketball coach and says the biggest sin for an official is inconsistency. He doesn’t mind if a ref is “bad” so long as he is bad, in the same way, throughout the game. If it’s a foul or travel or three-second violation in the first minute it should be in the last, too.

But refs in all sports do swallow their whistles in key moments. If you don’t take the word of one of basketball’s smartest young coaches, Brad Stevens, who believed in the phenomenon enough to adapt his strategy in the national championship, maybe you’ll consider systematic evidence.

In Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won, Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim use data to show that “officials routinely exhibit the omission bias by trying not to insinuate themselves into the game. This results in referees making far more incorrect non-calls than incorrect calls. Moreover, when the game is on the line (e.g., close scores near the end of a game), officials step back even further, in an attempt to remove themselves from the game, resulting in even more incorrect non-calls.”

So go ahead and say the Notre Dame players didn’t do anything wrong. Or that they had been doing it all game with no penalty. But don’t say the ref should have swallowed his whistle because the game was on the line. The players deserve better.

[Audio version]

3 thoughts on “Swallowing the Whistle”

  1. Or delay of game on a fake field goal. Or roughing the snapper. But definitely not two players with the same number for any wise ass who wants to bring that one up. TIme for complaining is officially over. We just need to win out. And if we do, and we don’t make it into the playoffs, then we know that Ty finally got his revenge.

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