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ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Malcolm Gladwell presents Ref, You Suck!, the first episode of the newest podcast from Pushkin Industries: Against the Rules with Michael Lewis.

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.

If you enjoyed this episode, subscribe to Against the Rules wherever you get your podcasts.
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TRANSCRIPT

00:00:00hello revisionist history listeners Malcolm Gladwell here I'm hard at work on season 4 which is coming your way in June in the meantime I want to send you the first episode of our newest show from Pushkin Industries the audio content company I found it with my good friend Jacob Weisberg against the rules hosted by Michael Lewis the author of Moneyball liars poker and the big short I've always said that Michael is the greatest Storyteller of Our Generation and in this series he considers a strange and troubling phenomenon affecting Sports business law even the dictionary Michael's argument is that wherever you look the referee the person whose job it is to maintain a sense of fairness is under attack everyone is Pushkin is really proud of the show and hopes that if you like it you'll subscribe wherever you listen to podcast
00:00:54you can also let us know what you think by giving us a review on Apple podcast my favorite thing though is a tagline it comes from Michael Lewis's son don't pick sides unless it's my side
00:01:13so 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. Erica brushing a four-story rectangular otherwise nondescript concrete building
00:01:58there's a discreet little sign here that says NBA and shows a logo with a basketball player
00:02:05inside 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
00:02:21the replay Center was built to persuade people that life was fair
00:02:36I Michael Lewis and this is against the rules it's a show about will give me just a minute to get to that
00:02:46the Chesapeake Bay Bridge
00:02:52this is a place where Brown is an exciting color
00:02:59and the door is locked right now
00:03:15for me this story really begins not in Secaucus but in Berkeley California with my 11 year old son is named 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 he passed 4-1 is no conflict with his teachers or his classmates or is Japanese Buddhist teammate I would say is mine is exactly pure but usually it's called
00:03:46the exception is when he deals with refs even Buddhist rest 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 clenched tight so everyone knows just how much Injustice he suffering
00:04:03Benny Marquez off with a scowl and it doesn't get over it
00:04:08Packer game this season he gets into the car and starts bitching and moaning all over again
00:04:13how did it make you feel when the ref made those calls you feel any better now
00:04:22tell me how it feels
00:04:25feels 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 but I also knew if I did it would be unfair because I knew that he was calling the stupid a spouse helpful look back and say I was being huge
00:04:50asshole
00:04:54play the steel play in a cup race cars and try to catch him he can see 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
00:05:12when 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
00:05:23and I think we have a technical foul as well
00:05:27play 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 you only had one girl
00:05:44and 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 I guess you're too 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 mouthguard off arrest chat
00:06:13he'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
00:06:51the Golden State Warriors hat
00:06:55can a single season bad behavior got various Golden State Warriors tossed out of 10 different basketball games Kevin Durant their best player title 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 are exemplars of the way people should behave to the especially Our Stars they like impeccably behave people I'm so pleased to have my son emulating your players the only time they have problems really is with referees 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
00:07:55mls in a rush and yeah my daughter will send me a text like that what you doing it's all over Twitter I can read your lips has 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
00:08:16which brings me to my hunch it has to do with referees and not just basketball referees
00:08:23the 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 that 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 that Americans one day I woke up and thrilled to the message that life was unfair
00:08:51some folks is rigged rigged economy banking system is rigged and there's a lot of things that are rigged in this world of ours. DeSantis that we grew up believing that America was about which brings me to what this show is about
00:09:12the 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
00:09:24Yakima some closely but you can hear that same Chad in a lot of American Life ref you suck
00:10:00hair we go back at the NBA's offices in Secaucus New Jersey someone eventually came to 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
00:10:26this place just on first view is amazing it's wall-to-wall screens 110 of them with on them is 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 or the names of the teams playing in their muted
00:10:50what you hear is referees staring at basketball games what you see is nothing but angles in professional basketball courts
00:10:57nobody's ever walked in here waughtown satisfy sucks
00:11:02and I'm not going to say it sucks either
00:11:05that'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 it's going to look like what do you think it is said if I told him we would have replay he turn over in his grave forget about a replay Center Authority at any rate everyone agree that there was no better way to ensure the fairness of the game then to let the ref play God
00:11:47the replay Center is an admission that is not God that he makes mistakes
00:11:53I 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 wraps on a basketball court to change their calls a lot of those calls are subjective like whether one player fouled another
00:12:46the rest on the court still make most of those calls themselves the exception is when the foul is flavor
00:12:58there's blood on the screens
00:13:00Kevin 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 the guys old but was going up the rest need to decide if the violence was not just excessive but unsportsmanlike which sounds are keg because we sort of lost a concept so the blood doesn't for the decision
00:13:32the 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 rafts is a run up and down the court cuz if they could do that they just fixed a recall 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 we're chip over their molar
00:14:32but it wasn't good enough because they didn't know where the voice was coming
00:14:39who is the voice in their heads
00:14:44this 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 connect this room directly to the NBA arenas around the country All 4 to call zagame at 2 calls again 15 million dollars
00:15:10can 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
00:15:35it sounds like Overkill to use a general to make sure a basketball games are well raft but the NBA thought it needed Overkill or at least Adam Silver the NBA commissioner did 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 taking a ridiculous amount of grief for trying to improve Justice in basketball there are groups 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
00:16:35so here's what else silver is done is brought in the pool of people from which rests are selected that used to be mostly white men mostly from the same background at one point 15 years ago for NBA refs came from the same high school he's hired more black wraps and female rest
00:16:53he's insisted the referees be physically fit so they can get into position to see all the plays well everyone else in America is getting fatter the rest are getting buff
00:17:02they'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 could see them he gives the teams and the refs a private document listing every reference day all this new date on wraps means that we and they know all sorts of strange things about their minds
00:17:25dresses made out of their calls are tended to favor whichever team's losing
00:17:30the calls also favored the home team some large part of home court advantage is just the refs the analytics Department of the Houston Rockets is even done a study that shows at 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 there's no basically small army of Geeks analyzing all this new data
00:17:54I don't really like writing papers about sports Federation 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 Mayan where the NBA referees have tremendous incentive not to make the wrong call Avery are they might distract those are is determined 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 picked apart and ways did not long ago would have seemed Preposterous not just for the fairness of their calls but for their unconscious Behavior will first took years of data from every NBA game that 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 Italy black team is playing and they referring crew is put on Atlee White
00:18:54animal fails Cold against them they don't Knights win the same team is playing with a predominantly black referring crew and it says that the answer is yes what does 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
00:19:54you 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
00:20:29look 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
00:20:52does the sound of those eighteen thousand people screaming at you doing 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 mighty 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 that things are out there on the internet I 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 all sure question death threats are made from time to time and playoff 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
00:21:49armed 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 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 to 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 makes you 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
00:22:49turn the fans act as if it's gotten worse
00:22:52I have a hunch about that too with you here in a minute
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00:24:24Kaiser Sacramento checking in right now so there is Eric an hour before
00:24:33Clippers versus Golden State on check-in and the Clippers will check in about the 9:30 roughly
00:24:40I'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 ref of having made the mistake that changed the outcome of course the mistake at the beginning has just as much effect on the game is a mistake at the end but the end is what people notice and get outraged about
00:25:11so the Justice at the end of the game must be more exact than it is at the beginning
00:25:16please 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 lemon goodness gracious if you don't have slow motion in here Freeze Frame it's very difficult of course in slow motion you can see things that the naked eye misses
00:25:44magician 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 and I know his 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 refs into making bad calls is now considered a skill a game ref in Houston Quarles his fingers in the air at some players in a three-point shot at the buzzer or has he
00:26:27the 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
00:26:45truth 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
00:26:54I start twisting dials just to see what happens if you cause a picture to zoom in and out on the bottom and straight to see the referee doing that like
00:27:10potential there's a lot of subjectivity in rapping with a whole bunch of the questions that arise on a basketball court have objective answers like who touched the ball last Fort Lee 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 touched the 3-point line when he left for his shot did the ball leave its fingertips before the buzzer sounded one of the dials or maybe it's actually a joystick lets me choose which angle the court I see
00:27:44I need to find one still frame with a 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
00:27:56is that I realize I have no idea who the player is I don't even know which team is on
00:28:03all I know is he's in Houston. Can I get a year
00:28:08likewise are all the same are they are going to say it's pretty much that they were possibly actually using 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 launched attacks on them it's not enough to be right you got to be fast
00:28:40Borgia tracks the average response time of the replay refs it's between 20 and 30 seconds
00:28:51the problems dealt with I think it is the right away another one comes up
00:28:57on a bunch of screens showing one Arena always 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
00:29:16Roger's going from Ralph 2 Ralph seems to know which refs to argue with
00:29:24so they're talking about they're talking 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
00:29:36the rough 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 you'll think twice before the next call
00:29:57extended it occurs to me just looking around the room at 110 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 referees face I've recognized 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 her finger on it the more aggressive behavior isn't coming from every player coming from the Stars
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00:32:17you know how whenever you try to do something simple and then it turns into a convoluted nightmare is always a middleman involved people say yeah but we have to go through a middleman or we would like to be able to deal with you directly but we're forced to go through a middleman questions first who are these middleman I mean what are they like who graduates from college and says I want to go in the middle Manning second where we forced to use another man who's doing the forcing a middle man possessed with magic powers are they packing heat are they so charming and persuasive they were all like okay okay I guess I have to use you even though you're making my life a living hell I don't get it which is why I like article I could tell you a million things about article amazingly beautiful crafted modern furniture all online I have the mod blueberry armchair from article which is so comfortable that I never leave it but here's the main thing no Middleman
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00:34:16so we just got really interesting a very simple question of does the sense of being privileged make you disobey the rules of the road or the laws of the land that's Decker killed her he's a professor of psychology Cal Berkeley and someone who wanders about the effect in a quality has on people's behavior and 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
00:34:48in 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 and it was most telling about this whole experience was he looked at me as if I was in the wrong and that I should get out of his way and you know even though I made it through the stop sign first
00:35:12so Daiquiri and a colleague dreamed up this weird experiment they hid to Berkeley undergraduate in the bushes near four-way stop sign
00:35:21the undergrads go to 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 a 3 Pacer was a one position of Berkeley undergrad buy a pedestrian Zone and we make sure they look like they want to cross the street right Nursery 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 of poor cars Zoom Through The Pedestrian Zone they all stopped and 40 some-odd percent 45% of the drivers of the five the five the ridge cars Blaze Through The Pedestrian Zone I just had the rules don't apply to me I'll carry on
00:36:17this 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 to 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 refereeing at the same time the friction between the players and some of the owners 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 the Warriors
00:37:17best 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 was 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 a basketball court is more found its profound 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
00:38:09the 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
00:38:28the Stars can't get the calls anymore just because they're stars or anyway not as often
00:38:35LeBron 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 when 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
00:38:59welcome to the reason for our show
00:39:03I think American life just now has at least one thing in common with basketball the authority of his 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
00:39:22situation goes for being more or less while refereed two more or less.
00:39:28Then 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
00:39:45do you flip a switch in a hundred and ten screens go dark
00:39:50I'm all the law smallishbeans 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
00:40:46they behave as people do when they think they're special young people emulate them without even thinking about it it just assumed that's how you act if you're a star or wannabe
00:40:58my 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
00:41:08I did it because the people on the area and the ivy I did it
00:41:16I'm cool do you believe in God no I knew it wouldn't I mean now I know what it meant but no I don't
00:41:26basically it's like thank you God for getting a three point shot do you do you think God was responsible when Klay Thompson 3-point shot everybody whenever they hit a 3-point shot
00:41:42I 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
00:42:04by 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 Jurado with research assistance from Zoey Oliver Grey our editor is Julia Barton malow Bell is our executive producer I seen was composed by Nick Patel with additional scoring by Samuel mastering by Jason Gambrell
00:42:37our show was recorded at Northgate studios in Berkeley by Topher roof
00:42:48special thanks to our Founders Jacob Weisberg and Malcolm Gladwell

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