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The Playcaller On The End of Georgetown-Villanova

In Fooled by Randomness, trader/philosopher/inferential-wizard Nassim Nicholas Taleb provides several entertaining examples of the natural but fallacious tendency most of us have to try to explain everything, despite the contention that most stuff is actually just random. Cognitive and social psychologists have labeled one of the manifestations of this tendency "confirmation bias," in which we look at data and pull out the pieces that match what we already believe, while leaving behind those that conflict. Confirmation bias is at least one of the factors at play when I quite intentionally tune in to one particular cable news station as opposed to the one my next-door-neighbor always chooses. This particular bias has gotten a lot of attention over the last several years by writers examining the sources and validity of dominant media narratives-whether in politics, racial or cultural stereotyping, or, to bring things closer to home, certain sports teams getting favorable treatment.

I have plenty of thoughts for the local tavern on dominant narratives of all sorts, but few worthy of public airing. What I do think I'm qualified to comment on is an apparent (at least to me) rise in confirmation bias in sports commentating. We've seen this on a macro scale several times in this decade in college football, as ESPN heads anoint a handful of teams as the chosen two (or few) early on, then struggle so mightily to maintain their balance as they backtrack after the underdog wins the BCS title game; or, in the case of 2004, when one of the two darlings (OU) tanks, leaving Auburn fans to wonder why the boys in Bristol couldn't see the forest for the trees. The college football world seems slowly to be waking up to the powerful contribution of confirmation bias in deciding who wins and who loses in college football. Those of us who care about college basketball need to wake up as well.

In Al Featherston's recent commentary comparing the ACC and the Pac-10, he argued implicitly that confirmation bias is likely going to end up sending several more Pac-10 schools than ACC schools to the NCAA Tournament, though the conferences are roughly equal in strength. His argumentation was assiduous, and the ACC's coaches would do well to step up to the mic sooner than later to address this. The good news for the ACC is that people will listen to Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski and Gary Williams whenever any of them wants to be heard. Unfortunately, there's another group badly in need of defending against the tidal wave of confirmation bias, a group without the benefit of a bully pulpit. I'm here to speak up for the refs.

Tonight in the Georgetown-Villanova game, a basketball game ended in a way that left most partisans feeling angry, empty, or relieved, but with few feeling joyful. As almost every college basketball fan knew by 11pm last night, Georgetown won the game 55-53 by hitting two free throws with one tenth of a second on the clock, the free throws resulting from a very questionable foul call eighty feet from the Villanova basket. The foul called on Corey Stokes for his slight bump on Jonathan Wallace was indeed marginal, questionable in fact. The issue missed by the three men ESPN paid to talk about the game was that the call was the "questionable" part. Sadly, there was far too much righteous indignation and far too little actual questioning to be found last night on the Worldwide Leader.

When the foul was called, the ESPN broadcasting crew of Sean McDonough, Jay Bilas, and Bill Raftery were quite understandably shocked. After all, regardless of whether the call would ultimately be validated by the tape, it certainly didn't initially appear like much of a foul. Because McDonough was doing the play-by-play, he was the first to express astonishment. His voice quite clearly rose in surprise-bordering-on-incredulity when he announced the foul. Bill Raftery could be heard groaning, "No….No." Bilas was silent for a significant period afterwards, seemingly much more measured in his response.

In this situation, I am perfectly content to grant announcers a great deal of latitude. They watched the play live (which leads to a great deal of excitement), they didn't see much of a foul, and two of the three were initially expressing their surprise. But that pass doesn't last forever. My expectation is that, as professionals, they regain their composure quickly and begin acting like journalists again. This would entail actually questioning the questionable call rather than simply pronouncing final judgment without rigorously examining the replay.

The production team would indeed cue up the replay in a timely manner, all they could be expected to do in the moment. The initial problem was in the narrating. The first replay was of the entire final sequence: the deflected Villanova pass, the resultant scramble, the Hoyas' Wallace coming out with it, followed by the bump by Stokes. Unfortunately, the verdict had already been passed by McDonough. After two replays and two "That is aaabsolutely brutal"s by McDonough, the dye seemed to have been cast.

The evidence here is that the third replay of the final sequence included an angle from an overhead camera, which would come closer to giving some important information. Raftery seemed to have a moment of clarity when he meekly asked the question on which the official's decision likely turned: "I wonder if he stepped out of bounds." But it was too late. Despite the fact that the overhead camera did not provide a conclusive angle of the sideline/foot relationship, Bilas, amazingly, pronounced (as if some part of him recognized the importance of Raftery's question) that there was "no need to call the out-of-bounds." Then, Hoya Saxa!, a better angle popped up, one that was at least focused on the right area. At that point Bilas backpedaled, adding, "Well this will give us a better angle." One wonders why Bilas thought a better angle was even needed.

Alas, fittingly by that point, that angle, too, proved inconclusive. Wallace went on to make both free throws, and as the Georgetown players expressed something distantly related to celebration, the audience would be treated to a nauseating coda by each member of the crew, who by then clearly considered the accuracy of the call a closed question. Bilas delivered a disgusted "Eighty feet from the basket," Raftery gave us the more measured, but nevertheless resignation-filled "Should have gone to overtime," and the sanctimonious McDonough waxed deep and eloquent with "These are three veteran officials who should know better" (as if all three officials made the call he considered so tragic).

Tangled in the mess that was the last two minutes of commentary lies the key: Raftery asked whether Wallace stepped out of bounds. On some level, Bilas recognized the importance of the question, or else he would not have mentioned it again in one of his pieces of narration. But neither man seemed to be willing to stand up and say "Wait a minute, there's a really important point here we need to explore." Raftery was right to ask it, and Bilas was right to feel that it was important; but both men were wrong in allowing themselves to be bullied into accepting the McDonough narrative that it was a horrible call.

There is a widely-accepted code among coaches and officials that says that lines aren't gray. In other words, officials have some discretion to pass on certain calls in certain situations, such as the marginal travel in the junior varsity contest, the slight bump on the LeBron dunk, the common rather than intentional foul in the calm blow-out. Lines, on the other hand, are lines. Even a toenail on the three-point arc, if seen, means a two-point try, no exceptions. And the same thing goes for the sidelines, baselines, the free-throw lines, and the division line (the only possible exceptions are lane lines on free throws, but that's a discussion for another time). Out-of-bounds is out-of-bounds. One corollary of this code is that if a player is bumped, then, despite reasonable efforts to stay in, goes out of bounds, it has to be a foul. With no o.o.b., there need be no foul. And, obviously, if the official does not have a good view of the line in question(or can feign a poor look), a foul need not be called (though it does force the official to explain to the supervisor why he was out of position to referee the sideline), and o.o.b. MUST not be called.

Those who have seen the same regular-definition replays that I have may be screaming by now, "But it's not clear he was o.o.b, in which case the foul shouldn't have been called!" To that quite reasonable position I have two responses: first, it is indeed not clear on video replay, but the official, whatever the criticisms, was exactly where he was supposed to be on the play, which is to say he had a perfect angle for judging o.o.b. So it's tough for me to definitively say he was wrong given our respective looks at the play. The second, and of greater meta-import, is that it wasn't clear to the commentators either, yet they did exactly zero real work to try to help clear up the question. There was ample time in the minute or so between the final foul and Wallace's first free throw for any one of them to ask the producer, "Can we get a clear shot of the sideline there?" But none did. Then, when they finally defaulted into that angle, there was no one calling for a freeze-frame (where was Vitale!).

Even if McDonough is unaware of the code I discussed, Raftery and Bilas--and the thimble-deep Digger Phelps, who piled on at midnight--are not. It's why the question occurred to Raftery in the first place, and then resonated a little bit with Bilas. I would have been perfectly fine if they'd frozen the replay in the right spot and someone had said, "You know, can you be completely sure there that he was o.o.b.? I recognize he had a good angle, and he was ruling it a force-out, which is not totally unreasonable, but I don't see how he can be completely sure there." Alternatively, but with greater hazard, someone could have conceded the technical o.o.b. violation, but disputed the need for the call; in other words, the screw-the-code argument. If Bilas, or Raftery, or McDonough had gone in either of those directions, I'd have nothing to say. But why did no one follow up?

I think it's instructive to replay the entire sequence and recall how it started: with McDonough leading the ghasps. As a general rule, it's very difficult for a commentator to go back and admit that he screwed up some play-by-play analysis, because, gosh, that's his entire job description. And if he can't get that right, what's he being paid for? It's so much easier to just press ahead and hope no one notices. Further, the more strident the initial claim, the more difficult it is to retreat, because, seriously--no really--why are they paying this guy? McDonough went bold from the start, and there was no reason for anyone to expect him to backtrack absent incontrovertible evidence (and maybe not even then). Our only hope was for Raftery or Bilas to be strong. But this, too, is hard, because it's a national broadcast, and judging by their spirited and friendly banter in Maui, they do seem to be good friends. And who wants to call out his buddy on television, the buddy who has just dug himself a hole so deep, that a quick, neat escape is impossible? It's much easier to jump down in the hole with him and bond over your togetherness. To be sure, McDonough made it extremely difficult for Bilas and Raftery to do their jobs well there, but that pair are too smart, too experienced, too good, to be excused here.

So what's the solution? Two big things to start: one, commentators should give the officials the benefit of the doubt from the start of any controversy. It's amazing how much the guys in stripes get right, even the stuff that looks so obviously wrong at first. Second, they should do their best to measure the grandiosity of their pronouncements after only seeing a play in real time. On-site, they have easy access to replay, and at home, we have youtube and TiVo that make our lives maybe even easier. If the guy or gal kicked the call, the truth will out soon enough; there's no need to rush to judgment.

And one small, final thing. Regardless of what you think about the call or my analysis of it, I hope you'll give thoughtful consideration to the contours of your own biases. Who knows, you may even end up sympathizing with the refs.

The Play Caller is a nine-year high school and college basketball official who happens to be a Duke fan. He welcomes your questions, comments, and suggestions, and can be reached at