A recent This American Life podcast discussed whether NBA referees were the most analysed workforce in the world.
The $15 million Replay Center in New Jersey is certainly an argument in favour. The Center was built in response to a record number of complaints around Ref decisions on the pitch from players, the crowds, and hundreds of thousands of views using social media to voice their frustrations.
"If there's one thing that unites Americans just now, it's their belief that the refs suck"
When in fact, refs today suck less than ever before.
There was a time where viewers agreed that a fairest way was refs to play god. But now, when all games are taped, people at home can pause, re-wind, and re-play refs decisions. It's created a culture where refs aren't trusted, and people feel a sense of injustice when things don't go their way.
In a small way, the Replay Center (in it's parking lot in Secaucus, New Jersey), was built to help people believe that life is fair. Inside, 110 wall-to-wall screens capture all the cameras in 29 NBA areas across the country. The refs sit there dressed in black, waiting for a signal. When called on, video technicians freeze a moment on screen, then zoom out or zoom in so that the entire screen contains only a player's fingertips or his toes.
Despite their best intentions, the NBA have taken a huge amount of grief, just for trying to make the game fairer. Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, observed that "If people don't believe that the league office is unbiased and that the officials are unbiased, you're going to have a problem regardless of the accuracy of the calls."
To ensure that is fairness built into the ref population, Silver has broadened the pool of people from which refs are selected including more black refs and more females.
"They used to be mostly white men, mostly from the same background. At one point, four NBA refs came from the same high school."
In a bold move, Silver decided to publish the mistakes made by every ref in the final two minutes of each games so everyone could see them. He then gives the teams and the refs a private document listing every refereeing mistake.
"All this new data on refs means that we and they know all sorts of strange things about their minds. For instance, we now know that their calls have tended to favor whichever team is losing. Their calls also favor the home team. Some large part of home court advantage is just the refs. The analytics department of the Houston Rockets has even done a study that shows that the home team that gets the best calls is the Utah Jazz. Why Utah? Who knows? But you can be sure that someone will figure that out."
With more data and more inclusive hiring than ever, Basketball has never been fairer. So why has the criticism of refs gone through the roof?
Well, it's turns out better for all doesn't been better for everyone. The star players, who have historically benefited from the bias of refs, are now being critiqued and analysed as much as the next player. They throw their arms up in the air in astonishment. Objectively has eliminated some of their privilege. The more objectivity there is, the less power they have.
And to them, that's outrageous.
Michael Lewis The refs here sit dressed in black staring at screens, waiting for a signal from somewhere in America. The end of games is when they get most involved, because that's when fans and coaches and players are most likely to accuse some ref of having made the mistake that changed the outcome. Of course, a mistake at the beginning has just as much effect on a game as a mistake at the end, but the end is what people notice and get outraged about. So the justice at the end of the game must be more exact than it is at the beginning. These Replay Center refs have video technicians with them, who can freeze a moment on screen, then zoom out or zoom in so that the entire screen contains only a player's fingertips or his toes. Here you just scroll through tiny slivers of the game, not the game itself. The sliver is where injustices might occur. Joe Borgia I mean, goodness gracious, if you don't have slow motion in here or freeze frame, it's very difficult. Michael Lewis Of course, in slow motion, you can see things that the naked eye misses. Magicians sometimes perform during halftimes of the NBA games. When Joe Borgia slows it down, he can see how they do their tricks. It's kind of the same thing with the players. Joe Borgia Exactly. I can go 1/60 of a second at a time. You're gonna pick a lot of little things up.