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The Referee Whisperers (Part 1)

In 2007, Joseph Price and Justin Wolfers, two economists, analysed the NBA’s referees and made some startling discoveries about racial bias. For them, the NBA was the perfect testing ground for subtle racial preferences: “referees and players are involved in repeated interactions in a high-pressure setting with referees making the type of split-second decisions that might allow implicit racial biases to manifest themselves. Moreover, the referees receive constant monitoring and feedback on their performance”. The authors found that “even conditioning on player and referee fixed effects (and specific game fixed effects) — that more personal fouls are called against players when they are officiated by an opposite-race refereeing crew than when officiated by an own-race crew. These biases are sufficiently large that we find appreciable differences in whether predominantly black teams are more likely to win or lose, based on the racial composition of the refereeing crew”. According to this paper’s findings, referees, even if they do not mean to, can influence the outcome of the game based solely on the racial makeup of the people on the court (refs included). The authors have gone out of their way to clarify that they do not think that any referees are racist people, but they do have calculable, demonstrable preferences that they themselves may not even realise.

In the fifteen years since the paper was published, the NBA has done a great deal of work to improve the performance of their referees. But the fact of the matter is that referees still have biases, and if someone has a bias, then they are easier to manipulate. Two consulting firms have emerged that aim to improve how players and coaches interact with referees. The first, Third Side Coaching, approaches referees from a rules/execution point of view. The second, RISE Analysis, analyses the personality types of referees to exploit their personality biases.

Third Side

Third Side Coaching was founded by Shelley Russi, who spent more than 20 years as an NCAA women’s referee before transitioning to the WNBA with the help of Don Vaden. Vaden, Third Side Coaching’s senior consultant, spent nearly 15 years as an NBA referee, and then worked within the officiating departments of both the NBA and the WNBA (Vaden was the Vice President of Basketball Operations for the NBA and Director of Officials for both the NBA and WNBA). Just like major corporations pay former hackers to test the IT security, basketball teams hire Third Side to get inside the minds of referees. They help players and coaches see the game through the eyes of a referee: angles and mechanics, how to minimise foul risks, and on-court applications of that study. They also teach clients how to maintain a respectful dialogue, avoid technical fouls, and build positive relationships.

Vaden consults with the Atlanta Hawks’ coaching staff on everything from challenge usage to effective communication with refs. His work with Hawks players has perhaps been even more notable, spanning from stars like Trae Young and John Collins on down the roster. Many around the team point to his work with “bigs” like Collins and Okongwu for its direct impact on their development. Okongwu spent hours with Vaden and assistant coach Matt Hill on the court this season, working on his physicality, positioning, and how to avoid foul trouble while on the court. As Hawks player Kevin Huerter put it, “In a lot of ways, [it’s] just bridging the gap between player and ref”, Huerter said. “If you disagree on a call, how to approach them about it. Knowing the rules about it so you can argue something and use facts behind your argument”.

Although it may sound simple, this kind of advice makes a real impact on games. If big men are committing fewer fouls, they can play more aggressively without fear of foul trouble on questionable calls. Attacking guards can better manipulate opposing players and referees to get favourable calls. So, like it or not, subtle referee biases have massive impacts on a team’s results, and it has always been that way. Players and coaches have been using these tactics for decades, but Third Side Coaching has broken things down into a more exact consulting product. Teams that do not approach manipulation with systems behind their backs will fall behind their competition. In the next instalment, we will discuss RISE Analysis, a European firm that takes things one step further, into the realm of referee manipulation based on referee personality.