Economists Do It With Models

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An Economist Watches Basketball…

May 30th, 2012 · 9 Comments
Discrimination · Sports

Guess what I’m doing tonight (when I’m supposed to be writing, naturally)…

(sidenote: I dare you to try and make a random XL t-shirt flattering) Go Celtics…hopefully I can switch back to the game 7 thumbs up as opposed to the pouting that was happening on Monday after game 1 versus the Heat. It’s not at all surprising to me that economists like sports more than your average nerds, if for no other reason than a lot of sport ball games lend themselves to analyzing a number of research questions, surprisingly enough. Consider, for example, the “ball don’t lie” concept:

ball don’t lie

A phrase commonly used by professional basketball player Rasheed Wallace; once famously yelled by coach Flip Saunders.

“Ball don’t lie” is said when a player misses one, two or all three of his free throws after a questionable (read as: bullshit) foul call is made by an official. The ball is, essentially, the unbiased judge who will not reward the player by going in if the apparent foul was indeed bullshit.

*Andrew Bogut locks arms with Rasheed Wallace and trips over his own feet, prompting a foul call from the referee*

Rasheed: That’s BULLSHIT, man!

*Andrew Bogut toes the line and proceeds to miss his first free throw*

Rasheed: BALL DON’T LIE!

*Bogut then attempts a second free throw and misses again*


Now, social scientists aren’t inclined to automatically accept conventional wisdom, so obviously some empirical evidence and perhaps a regression or two is in order. Luckily, social psychologists Graeme Haynes and Thomas Gilovich have got us covered:

Previous research has found that people are often averse to inequity, even when it works to their own advantage. The present research extends previous demonstrations of inequity aversion by examining how it plays out in a real-world context in which self-interest motivations and competitive pressures are substantial. National Basketball Association games were examined and instances of obviously incorrect foul calls were identified. Players were found to make a substantially lower percentage of the foul shots they were awarded as a result of incorrect calls, indicating that they were troubled by the inequity. This drop-off in performance was only observed when the shooter’s team was ahead, highlighting the trade-off between the two conflicting motives of self-interest (the desire to win) and inequity aversion.

In other words, the ball really don’t lie, and there is a psychological reason for it. Similarly, the make-up call is a real thing:

A make-up call is a particularly enigmatic type of potential referee bias in sports. Examples could include a wrong call to balance a prior wrong call or a questionable call to balance a prior questionable call. Motivation for a make-up call may derive from the rationalization that “two wrongs make a right,” from crowd or team pressures, or from a league’s explicit or implicit incentives. In this paper, I investigate whether NBA referees may consciously or subconsciously be affected by such factors using play-by-play data of over 1.1 million possessions from 6,538 games played during five seasons from 2006-2011. I examine the probability of various judgment call turnovers on one team when a judgment call was recently made against the opposing team, using information on nonjudgment turnovers to control for possible changes in player aggression and awareness. Findings support a make-up call hypothesis, whether intentioned or not. Results do not support a hypothesis of make-up non-calls; i.e., that a referee is less likely to make a judgment call because a potentially incorrect call had recently been made on the same team. This paper sheds important light on an oft-suggested but seldom-studied type of potential behavioral bias.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that conventional wisdom is often borne out in the data. In somewhat related news, apparently NBA referees are a tad (subliminally) racist when it comes to foul calls:

To investigate whether such bias has existed in sports, Mr. Wolfers and Mr. Price examined data from publicly available box scores. They accounted for factors like the players’ positions, playing time and All-Star status; each group’s time on the court (black players played 83 percent of minutes, while 68 percent of officials were white); calls at home games and on the road; and other relevant data.

But they said they continued to find the same phenomenon: that players who were similar in all ways except skin color drew foul calls at a rate difference of up to 4 1/2 percent depending on the racial composition of an N.B.A. game’s three-person referee crew.

I don’t know about you, but things like this make watching sports a lot more interesting to me. Also, as someone born in Ohio and transplanted to Miami, you know what else makes this series interesting? This:

Tags: Discrimination · Sports

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Roland Martinez // May 30, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    Does a professional athlete really maximize utility by refusing to exploit inequitable situations?

  • 2 Derek // May 30, 2012 at 10:24 pm

    What? A professional athlete’s utility and success are both highly correlated to their ability to spot and engage in opportunism.

    -picking on a cornerback as QB
    -posting up smaller player as PF
    -speed matchups in soccer
    -pitching selection in the most statistical of sports, baseball

    the list goes on…

    although your question assumes that utility is a function of in-game success and not just the paychecks….which is another argument altogether…

    LETS GO C’S!!

    oh, and i love you jodi.

  • 3 Russ Nelson // May 30, 2012 at 11:23 pm

    I’m confused. Where is the economic textbook you’re reading in those two photos??

  • 4 JohnR // May 31, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    Great column, I laughed. The Celts are garbage but that’s for a different column.

  • 5 MEnz // May 31, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    “Ball don’t lie” is a common way to resolve disputes in pickup games where there are no referees and players cannot decide on a call. A player will shoot to determine what the outcome should be. It is a great way to resolve these issues because everyone knows that people may, but “ball don’t lie.”

  • 6 Roland Martinez // May 31, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    @Derek Yes, that’s my point. I can’t imagine that a professional, who has every incentive to exploit lucky breaks will suddenly feel guilt and underperform.

    Do we blame the recent JP Morgan losses on a surfeit of guilt?

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