Rage at referees is all the rage in professional sports. Michael Lewis visits a replay center that’s trying to do the impossible: adjudicate fairness.
United States
explicit content


00:00:04So we're walking across the parking lot in Secaucus, New Jersey with ceramic concrete. Nothing green. It took a lot to get me to this place there chain hotel and motels in someone's idea of them all but I have a hunch I suspicion about the crisis that we find ourselves in to fill with cheap chain restaurants, and we're surrounded on all sides by three ways. It's like what people think about when they tell jokes about New Jersey. I think you can see what's going on right here in Secaucus. Eric approaching a 4-story rectangular. Otherwise nondescript concrete building.
00:00:49There's a discreet little sign here that says NBA and shows a logo with a basketball player.
00:00:56Inside a recent concession to the world. We live in the replay Center a place where basketball referees review the calls made by other basketball referees in real-time minimize referee error.
00:01:12The replay Center was built to persuade people that life was fair.
00:01:27I Michael Lewis and this is against the rules. It's a show about
00:01:33give me just a minute to get to that.
00:01:37Is this pink beige? It doesn't doesn't like.
00:01:44This is a place where Brown is an exciting color.
00:01:50And the door is locked.
00:02:07For me this story really begins not in Secaucus, but in Berkeley California with my 11 year old son. His name is Walker Walker Lewis. He plays on a basketball team run if you can believe it by a Japanese Buddhist temple. My son is in a Buddhist. The most of the time you get pass for one is no conflict with his teachers are his classmates or his Japanese Buddhist teammate. I would say is mine is exactly pure but usually it's called
00:02:37The exception is when he deals with refs, even Buddhist ref anytime a ref Blows the Whistle on the me throws up his arms in astonishment and he jumps up and down with a little fist balled up his mouth, and nose. Just how much Injustice he suffering.
00:02:54Benny Marquez off with a scowl and it doesn't get over it.
00:02:59Packer game this season he gets into the car and starts bitching and moaning all over again.
00:03:05How did it make you feel when the ref made those calls? You feel any better now?
00:03:13Tell me how it feels.
00:03:16Feels like someone keeps poking you in the back of the shoulder and then saying wow Fel Fel Fel. Did you know that you are risk of failing out gas, but I also knew if I did it would be unfair because I knew that he was calling to stupid a spouse will look back and say I was being huge.
00:03:45Play the steel play in a cup race cars and try to catch him. He can't the thing is I know why my son does what he does. He thinks he's play the All-Star shooting guard of the Golden State Warriors.
00:04:03When clay gets of 3 clay pounds is chest and points to the sky and so in Walker Lewis hits a 3B 2 pounds is chest and points to the sky.
00:04:14I think we have a technical foul as well.
00:04:18What a very unusual when Clay is called for a foul. He scowls and throws up his arms in astonishment and sometimes even says something to the ref that gets him slapped with a technical foul. The only had one during the entire.
00:04:35And Clay's the famously most laid-back All-Star in the entire National Basketball Association. Something has happened in the relationship between referees and players of the last year or two. That's Ramona Shelburne. She's covered the NBA for the last decade for ESPN. It's been ugly this year. One of the Warriors head-butted a ref another Chuck his disgusting mouth guard off arrest chat.
00:05:04He's already have the technical has been thrown out of the game and some of the stuff. I've seen it mean when Draymond Green is is getting fine for calling Lauren holtkamp and Mikasa on your podcast. I think we already have a fucking bitch like like when when he is saying that to a female referee and getting fined and suspended for that man. That's the next level and I haven't seen that before this season. It's the stars now who are really pushing the issue right? It's Kevin Durant getting thrown out of games. It's Steph Curry getting thrown out.
00:05:42the Golden State Warriors hat
00:05:47In a single season bad behavior got various Golden State Warriors tossed out of 10 different basketball games Kevin Durant their best player in the league record by getting tossed from five games all by himself the men who coached the stars are much better even Steve Kerr the Warriors famously decent civic-minded coach. I can snap I can completely lose it if you back away from the Golden State Warriors, I mean, they're Exemplar is of the way people should behave to be especially your star is there like impeccably behaved people. I'm so pleased to have my son emulating your players. The only time they have problems really is with referees. Yeah. I can't imagine you in your life have another relationship. Like you have a good record. You're right. You're right. I would never say the things that I do to referees to a person in normal life. It happens two or three times a year and I've been caught on camera, you know.
00:06:47And I'll sing a rough, you know, my daughter will send me a text like that. What you doing? It's all over Twitter. I can read your lives as a bear and I and I'm embarrassed. So why is that, you know, it's a sense of right or wrong. You know what I feel like there's like this personal offense like something unfair is happening.
00:07:07Which brings me to my hunch it has to do with referees and not just basketball referees.
00:07:14The people everywhere charge not just with enforcing rules, but with preserving a sense of fairness on Wall Street in the news in courts of law in the many little disputes the pockmark everyday life there many different kinds of rest and most of them are into some kind of attack. So maybe it's not that surprising than Americans one day. I woke up and thrilled to the message that life was unfair, you know.
00:07:42Simplex is rigged Joey chest rig economy banking system is rigged and there's a lot of things that are rigged in this world of ours. DeSantis. We grew up believing that America was about which brings me to what this show is about.
00:08:03The people whose job it is to maximize fairness not just in sports, but most everywhere which happening to them tells us a lot about what's happening to us.
00:08:15Yakima some closely but you can hear that same Chad in a lot of American Life ref you suck.
00:08:51Hair we go back at the NBA's offices in Secaucus, New Jersey someone eventually came and unlock the door. And then they let me down a hall filled with a lot of old basketball stuff jerseys and bobbleheads in basketball and posters of Michael Jordan. The replay Center was the ultimate man cave in the battle for fairness.
00:09:17This place just on first day of his amazing. It's wall-to-wall screens 110 of them was on the MS. Whatever is captured by all the cameras in 29 NBA arenas across the country. This isn't the broadcast video with commercials and commentary the screens here don't even have the scores of the games on them for the names of the teams playing in their muted.
00:09:41What you hear is referees staring at basketball game what you see is nothing but angles in professional basketball courts.
00:09:49Nobody's ever walked in here waughtown satisfy sucks.
00:09:53And I'm not going to say it sucks either.
00:09:56That's Joe Borgia who designed the center back in 2014 and now runs it before he volunteered for Secaucus Duty. He refereed NBA games is father was an NBA ref before him with a break in the late sixties of Borgia has been roughing professional basketball games since 1946 and look like what do you think? It is said if I told him we would have read but he turn over in his grave forget about a replay Center at that right to insist on their Authority near ate everyone agree that there was no better way to ensure the fairness of the game then to let the ref play God.
00:10:39The replay Center is an admission. That is not God that he makes mistakes.
00:10:44I think the mention of Replay none of us liked it when we first heard it. It's a necessary evil. It's necessary. You have to have it today. Now everyone pays more attention to the referees mistakes. So the NBA has two as well. Now when a ref thinks he might have screwed up some call or didn't get a good look at the action Between Worlds is fingers in the air. That's the signal to the ref in the replay Center who goes to work reviewing the tape looking for the best angle to figure out what actually happened. That's the thing is everybody can see it now. You can't have them be in a better position to judge the game in the referees. Absolutely. The replay Center is what allows refs on a basketball court to change their calls. A lot of those calls are subjective like whether one player fouled another
00:11:37The rest on the court still make most of those calls themselves. The exception is when the foul is flavor.
00:11:49There's blood on the screens.
00:11:52Kevin Love's front tooth got knocked in Love play for the Cleveland Cavaliers. And the question is did the guy who pop him in the mouth do it intentionally where two guys old what was going on the rest need to decide if the violence was not just excessive but unsportsmanlike, which sounds are CAG because we sort of lost the concept for the blood doesn't support the decision.
00:12:24The players all stand around scratching themselves while the rest put on headsets and talk to the replay Center. We're looking for the unnatural. Did he throw his elbow out the whole thing only takes 30 seconds 30 seconds in which players fan coaches get even more pissed off at the rest for taking so long. The only thing stopping the replay center from checking every decision is it slow the game down here in Secaucus is still trying to figure out how am I talk to the refs is a run up and down the court cuz if they could do that, they just fix every call on the fly if Special Forces we found out we actually use a chip Bowl for the molar that worked off the vibration of the bone live in that way that we we got a handful of G League referees molded and we tested that over there molar.
00:13:24But it wasn't good enough because they didn't know where the voice was coming.
00:13:30What is the voice in their head? This is actually insane the time and money now being spent to ensure the fairness of what after all is. Just a basketball game a Jillian miles of fiber optic cable connectors room directly to the NBA arenas around the country for two calls a game at to Paul's again, but you got to do it.
00:14:01Can I just pause here a moment just to consider with the NBA has done in the past few years to improve the calls. For example, they brought in serious managers to hire and train the refs Joe Borgia calls his boss the general because she's actually a general and an Airforce pilot. Her name is Michelle Johnson. And before she supervised the NBA refs. She ran the Air Force Academy.
00:14:26It sounds like Overkill to use a general to make sure basketball games are well raft the NBA thought it needed Overkill or at least Adam Silver the NBA commissioner did 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 silver took over in 2014. And also hired Joe Borgia to create the replay Center since then the NBA commissioner has taken a ridiculous amount of grief for trying to improve Justice in basketball. There are group of people who think that without the sort of transparency that we see in this day and age that it enabled certain officials and maybe with it with a touch of Frontier Justice 2 overall create more of a fair environment, even if that were true and I'm not sure it is those days are over and I think it's whether it's in sports or other walks of life that you cannot turn the clock back on transparency.
00:15:26So here's what else silver is done is brought in the pool of people from which rests are selected. They used to be mostly white men mostly from the same background that 1.15 years ago for NBA refs came from the same high school. He's hired more black wraps and female rest.
00:15:44Is insisted the referees be physically fit so they can get into position to see all the plays. Well, everyone else in America is getting fat or the refs are getting buff.
00:15:54They're also not getting new feedback on all their bad calls silver decided to publish the mistakes made by every ref in the last 2 minutes of every game. So everyone can see them. He gives the teams and the refs a private document listing every reference tag. All this new date on wraps means that we and they know all sorts of strange things about their minds.
00:16:16Dresses made out of their calls are tended to favor whichever team's losing.
00:16:21Their calls also favor the home team some large part of home court advantage is just the rest. The analytics Department of the Houston Rockets is 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 is now basically small army of Geeks analyzing all this new data.
00:16:45I don't really like writing papers about sports Federal in that the economy. That's Justin wolfers a behavioral Economist at the University of Michigan and a co-author of a paper about NBA refs get the thing is this is at the mine where the NBA referees have tremendous incentive not to make the wrong call Avery are they might distract those errors determine whether they get moved I am those games to tell me how much they get paid. This is arguably the most analyzed Workforce in the country basketball referees are now pick a part in ways that not long ago would have seemed Preposterous not just to the fairness of their calls before they're unconscious Behavior will first took years of data from every NBA game and he set out to look for evidence of the refs racial bias. The question here isn't where the people are anti-black or anti-white, but with is an in-group bias. So if I put on only black team is playing and they referring crew is put on only one night.
00:17:45Animal fails Cold against them. They don't Knights win. The same team is playing with a predominantly black referring crew and it's inside the answer is yes, what is paper back in 2007 for this new age of referee transparency? Well, it was a blessing for me. You can probably tell by my accent Michael. I'm in Australian know I thought it was interesting piece of social science at 10. The the New York Times put on the front page in the NBA wasn't happy the commissioner of the time attack the study and embarrass the league by trying and failing to refute its findings this morning will hear from the NBA commissioner David Stern and most rated and that's why we take exception to what the times did hear that's turn on NPR in 2007 the result of all this coverage every single referee was made aware of his unconscious bias when the dust settled Justin wolfers was curious to know if his paper it had an affair.
00:18:45You made another study of referees after the controversy had created and guess what the most recent study that we did seems to suggest that form of racial bias is going away. He has no idea why maybe simply making the rest of where the problem was enough to correct it but in the end this became a case study not in ref ineptitude, but referee form NBA refs have achieved with police forces can only dream of race blindness. The refs have no choice the world's not too good at seeing their mistakes.
00:19:21Look is no way any basketball referees going to be perfect. But there's also no way these refs or anything but more accurate than they've ever been. I mean even home court advantage means less than it used to and yet these wraps or is it the trying to rig the games?
00:19:43Is the sound of those eighteen thousand people screaming at you or Brewing you is it sound any different than it sounded when you started in 1991 what used to be sort of of the garden-variety? You're terrible you suck any of those kinds of term that's money McCutchen who recently quit rapping NBA games to serve as a kind of life coach to the other NBA refs to talk them through their problems. Now, you know people do their research. They things are out there on the internet. They know your record with it with their team. They they've done all there's all these sites on all these different no personal things about you sure question death threats are made from time to time in playoffs series and you'll get security all the way to to both the hotel and then the hotel the next morning out to the airport that security to the hotel not every night. But when those threats are are a known factor that has happened in my career.
00:20:40Armed security to your car is mandatory every night. Yep. These days refs need bodyguards to escape after the game. Here are people were mostly just trying to do these extremely difficult jobs as well as they can. It's some point you feel this question rising up in you and me it rose up while I was talking to Ramona Shelburne the ESPN reporter. Why would anybody want to be a ref? Seriously? I wonder that too man, you're not allowed to explain themselves are not allowed to defend themselves. Obviously, they get paid they started 150 Grand a year and if they're great at their job and work extra games, they can make as much as 500 but there are lots of ways to get paid without spending half your life and hotel rooms and the other half being insulted by arena is filled with crazy people. Do you think the referee has gotten worse or better? Make sure think it's gotten better. Of course. It's gotten better. How could it not have the mystery is why the stars and the coach?
00:21:40Turn the fans act as if it's gotten worse.
00:21:43I have a hunch about that to which you here in a minute.
00:21:55Daiso Sacramento checking in right now. So there is Eric an hour before.
00:22:04Clippers versus Golden State on check-in the Clippers will check in about the 9:30, roughly.
00:22:11I'm back with Joe Borgia in the replay Center the refs here sit dressed in black staring at screen 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 rap of having made the mistake that changed the outcome. Of course, I mistake at the beginning is just as much effect on the game is a mistake at the end, but the end is what people notice and get outraged about
00:22:42So the Justice at the end of the game must be more exact than it is at the beginning.
00:22:47Please replay Center refs have video technicians with them who can freeze a moment on screen then zoom out zoom in so that the entire screen contains only a player's fingertips or his toes. Are you to scroll through tiny slivers of the game not the game itself, the slippers wearing justices might occur. If you don't have slow motion in here Freeze Frame very difficult, of course in slow motion. You can see things that the naked eye misses.
00:23:15Magician, sometimes performed during halftime 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 for the 60th of a second at a time. You're going to take a lot of little things flopping is what they call it when a player pretends to have been knocked over by another player tricking the rest into making bad calls is now considered a skill in Houston Twirls his fingers in the air some players in a three-point shot at the buzzer, or has he
00:23:58The Houston ref wants to know if the players toe is on the three-point line and if he got off the shot before the buzzer, it's just now that Joe says I can work the equipment.
00:24:16The truth is I'm not a big equipment guy my first step when something needs to be assembled or operated is to call someone and say I'll pay whatever cost.
00:24:25I start twisting dials just to see what happens if your cause the picture to zoom in and out watch the referee on the bottom and straight to see the referee doing that like
00:24:41Potential there's a lot of subjectivity in rapping but a whole bunch of the questions that arise on a basketball court have objective answers like who touched the ball last for when out of bounds or was there still time on the clock before the shot left? The players hands? This is one of those did the players foot touch the three-point line when he left for his shot. Did the ball leave his fingertips before the buzzer sounded like one of the dials, or maybe it's actually a joystick lets me choose which angle the court I see.
00:25:15I need to find one still frame with the shooters foot in it and another with a clock in it that I need to freeze the picture in the 160th of a second that the ball left the shooters fingertips.
00:25:27Is that I realize I have no idea who the player is. I don't even know which team he's on.
00:25:34All I know is he's in Houston. Can I get a beer?
00:25:38Likewise are all the same are they are going to say it's pretty much what I was doing and that this is a little bit of anxiety the coaches get to stop the game with pointless time out the advertisers get to stop the game to sell beer. But when a ref stops a game to make it more fair the crowd Boos and the announcers launch attacks on them. It's not enough to be right you got to be fast.
00:26:11Borgia tracks, the average response time of the replay refs. It's between 20 and 30 seconds.
00:26:22The problems dealt with I think it is the right away another one comes up.
00:26:28What a bunch of screens showing one Arena at least people are jumping around and hollering rest, but in here, it feels like the entire universe is Disturbed. It turns out LeBron James is upset because arguing
00:26:47LeBron James going from Ralph 2 Ralph seems to know which refs to argue with.
00:26:55So they're talking about it's all going about it. I think they might change the changes James any other guy had the best angle. You think that LeBron James has any effect doing that?
00:27:07The ref in Cleveland is not twirling. His finger is no signal to us to do anything in the replay Center. LeBron's drama strictly speaking is pointless. It's strange the way these players argue. They must think that they make life unpleasant enough for the ref. I'll think twice before the next call.
00:27:29It's been that it occurs to me just looking around the room at a hundred and ten TV screens. I've had a hard time following the games. Never mind. The score is I sometimes don't even know which teams are playing but every time a player gets up into a referee's face. I'd recognize the player and I actually don't know that many NBA players, but I know all the ones who pitched these hissy fit because the only players getting up into the faces of the refs are the famous players or the coaches who protect them Ramona Shelburne put a finger on it. The more aggressive behavior isn't coming from every player coming from the Stars.
00:28:23So we just got really interesting a very simple question of does this sense of being privileged make you disobey the rules of the road or the laws of the land. That's dacher Keltner. He's a professor of psychology at Cal Berkeley. If someone who wanders about the effect in a quality has on people's behavior experience. I had in Berkeley where I was riding my bike up this hill and I got to the park by a stop sign and I was halfway through this 4-way stop sign.
00:28:55In the sky in a black Mercedes roll through the stop sign is halfway. There is a foot away from you about to take me out and he's on his cell phone and I looked at it today and it was most telling about this whole experience was he looked at me as if I was in the wrong and I should get out of his way and you know, even though I made it through the stop sign first.
00:29:20So dagger in a colleague dreamed up this weird experiment. They hid to Berkeley undergraduate in the bushes near four-way stop sign.
00:29:28The undergrads noted the mix of all cars coming through the intersection assign the numbers 1 to 5, according to their market value a new Mercedes with a v a Honda was at 3 an old Pacer was a one position of Berkeley undergrad by a pedestrian Zone and we make sure they look like they want to cross the street right next door leading into The Pedestrian Zone. Where is required by California law to stop it's a game of one-on-one the California crosswalk one car versus one pedestrian and 0% of the drivers for cars Zoom Through The Pedestrian Zone, they all stopped and 40 some-odd percent 45% of the drivers of the five the five the rich cars Blaze Through The Pedestrian Zone and you say the rules don't apply to me. I'll carry on.
00:30:24This one study led to a bunch of others that showed basically the same pattern of human behavior another experiment. We bring people to the lab and if they're leaving there's this big bowl of candy and it's like and it says on it for the children of the Institute of human development on the ball and we're leaving and well do we count of how many candies does it take after they leave the experiment privileged people grab a big handful of candy compared to poor people. So let's turn the car say something much more important basketball in the last five or six years. The NBA has embarked on essentially a dramatic reform reference at the same time the friction between the players and some of the owners of the couches and the rest is going through the roof. The source of the outrage is the star players that people getting thrown out of games are Kevin Durant and Steph Curry and James Harden.
00:31:24Best team ever walk on the court are the chief culprit exhibit a in bad behavior towards rest. So you got this weird combination fascinating fan, you know, the great Magic Johnson teams and watching Larry Bird do his nine step layup and I'd like to make a call Larry Bird would like LeBron the new Mercedes of his day. He played with certain assumptions about the rules and how they applied to him from most players of his era to steps counted as traveling the inequality on the basketball court. Yeah. I got Larry Bird was a millionaire LeBron James might be a billionaire and these guys are Global franchise. Yeah, so you got in a funny way of microcosm and macrocosm on a basketball court what's going on the largest Society?
00:32:17The NBA set up to ref the game more objectively more accurately more fairly. This isn't rage the stars and their fans and coaches. You want to know why the more objectivity there is the less power. They have objective refs eliminate some of their privilege.
00:32:36The Stars can't get the calls anymore just because they're stars or anyway, not as often.
00:32:43LeBron James and Kevin Durant and Steph Curry and Klay Thompson survive better rest because they're actually just better than everyone else. They don't need unfairness to win. What happens where there are no replay centers where there's no hope for Pure objectivity or technology to improve calls where the refs can no longer defend themselves from the Stars.
00:33:07Welcome to the reason for our show.
00:33:11I think American life just now has at least one thing in common with basketball. The authority of its referees is under attack. And when you have a weak referee, you have a big problem because a week referee is a referee who can be bought or intimidated or just simply ignored.
00:33:29Situation goes from being more or less while refereed two more or less.
00:33:35Then one day you wake up in a world that seems not just unfair but actually sort of rigged that is it's incapable of becoming Fair because the people who benefit from the unfairness have the power to preserve it.
00:33:53Do you flip a switch in a hundred and ten screens go dark?
00:33:57All the law small speed you got to do manually the big TVs. We got the remote for most nights Joe Borgia stays at the replay Center until almost 2 in the morning just him in a couple of rest staring a tiny slivers of basketball games trying to impose Justice on powerful people who don't want it you do they have to be partially 100% negative business naturally becomes a referee the next he doesn't one day most people think the wraps are more or less there weren't any rate. They don't spend a lot of time blaming them for all their problems the next day they wake up to radical inequality the people on top the elites think they're special.
00:34:53They behave as people do when they think they're special young people emulate them without even thinking about it. They just assume that's how you act if you're a star or wannabe.
00:35:05My first question is why when you hit a 3-point shot, which you often do why in the past few padded your chest and pointing to the sky?
00:35:15I did it because the people on the area and the ivy I did it.
00:35:24I'm cool. Do you believe in God now? I know what it meant. But no, I don't.
00:35:34Basically, it's like thank you God for everybody whenever they hit a 3-point shot.
00:35:50I don't think that he would be able to like actually make make them make the shop getting off. Don't take sides unless it's my side.
00:36:12A Michael Lewis. Thanks for listening to against the rules. It's our first episode. We got a lot more to come against the rules is brought to you by Pushkin Industries shows produced by Audrey dilling and Catherine jerideau was research assistance from Zoe Oliver Grey. Our editor is Julia Barton malow Bell is our executive producer. I seen was composed by Nick Patel with additional scoring by Seth Samuel mastering by Jason Gambrell.
00:36:44Our show was recorded at Northgate studios in Berkeley by Topher roof.
00:36:55Special thanks to our Founders Jacob Weisberg and Malcolm Gladwell.

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