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Thursday, February 08, 2007
Accountability, Independence, and Finality (or Duke, Clemson, and Pine Tar)

Some of the comments to the post about O.J. Mayo have drifted to the issue of leagues and athletic associations scrutinizing game officials for their calls. I have discussed my concerns that having leagues looking over officials' shoulders makes the latter unable to do their jobs. On the other hand, some performance review is necessary to make sure officials are doing their jobs well and properly. This is the sports equivalent of the political debate between judicial accountability and judicial independence.

The line I suggest is that leagues and supervisors cannot interfere with the outcome of the game. There is a benefit, in sports as well as law, to finality of a result--once a game (or a case) has become final, bodies other than the court (i.e., game officials) should not interfere with that result. Even if we disagree with the result or with a decision or call by the official that lead to the result. This is, I think, especially true for discretionary decisions--did Mayo do something that warranted a technical foul for taunting?

Law generally agrees with this. Once a judicial decision becomes final (i.e., all layers of appeal and review have been exhausted), the legislature cannot undo or change that result or order the case done over. And leagues generally abide by this same notion.

We can see this from the ACC's response to last month's clock controversy in the Clemson-Duke men's basketball game. As you may recall, the game official delayed starting the clock on a play with 5 seconds left, giving Duke an extra 2+ seconds at the end of the game to get the ball up-court for a game-winning shot. There otherwise would not have been enough time to run the same play, meaning the game likely would have gone into overtime. (Via Deadspin here). The ACC admitted that an error was made, but in Deadspin's words, "after much careful consideration, have decided, 'fuck it.'"

Which was the entirely proper response. What else could they have done: Send everyone back to Cameron and pick up the game with the right amount left on the clock? Replay the entire game? Plus, there no doubt were many calls and non-calls throughout the game, some right and some wrong. Should all of them be up for review? And how can we tell which ones did or did not determine the outcome. Of course, this makes one wonder why the league bothered announcing that the officials had made a mistake, given that they could not do anything about the call with respect to the game.

Now, should the officials themselves be subject to some individual sanction or punishment (including termination) for making mistakes such as these, without affecting the game result? At some level, yes. The leagues have an interest in ensuring that officials are competent and doing a good job. So something clear--the ref forgot to start the clock--could be grounds for job action. But leagues must be careful in doing this, since officials need a certain degree of discretion -- was there enough contact on a given play that one player gained an advantage, warranting a foul? -- that is lost if they know they could be fired because the league disagrees with one or a few calls. Something more should be required before calls that the league disagrees with become the basis for suspending or firing an official. Plus, I think officials know when they have made a mistake like that--and presumably regret it and will try to make sure it does not happen again. A one-game suspension is not going to do much more.

The only time I can recall a game outcome changing because of a league finding of official error was the infamous Pine Tar Game between the Kansas City Royals and New York Yankees in 1984, which itself spawned some legal scholarship. But a couple things made that situation unique. First, we could point with absolute certainty to the effect on the outcome: if the call stands, that is the final out of the game. Second, it arguably was an example of the officials misunderstanding what the applicable rule required, as opposed to a decision of how to apply the rule in that situation. Third, baseball has a process for "playing games under protest" to the league, although never for purely discretionary decisions (safe/out or ball/strike or whether to eject a player).

And even then, the league's decision to order the game resumed from the point of the error (with the home run, and the Royals lead, reinstated) was not without controversy. It is certainly not something we want to see occur regularly in other sports.


"since officials need a certain degree of discretion -- was there enough contact on a given play that one player gained an advantage, warranting a foul? -- that is lost if they know they could be fired because the league disagrees with one or a few calls."

I'm not sure this makes sense. How could discretion be "lost"? No matter what the league does after the fact, officials have to make the call on the field. Thus, even not calling a foul is an act of discretion subject to review. (Or are you claiming that only foul calls are reviewed, but not non-foul calls?) The only way that officiating could be affected is if certain classes of decisions are more likely reviewed for error than other types of decisions, e.g., foul calls are more likely reviewed than the decision not to call a foul. (Note the similarity here with the argument regarding the cert. pool driving down the number of cases heard by the Supreme Court.) If that is true, then officials will call less fouls. But if that becomes a problem, the obvious remedy is to start reviewing more disputed non-foul calls. More importantly, is there any evidence that foul calls are reviewed more harshly than non-foul calls? (For procedural reasons, I could understand why technical fouls leading to suspensions might be reviewed more often due to the players' right to appeal a suspension, but I'm not sure about run-of-the-mill fouls.)

Anonymous PK -- 2/09/2007 1:42 PM  

1) Overturning the outcome of a game and overturning the post game effect of a technical foul are distinct. To be clear, noone has suggested changing the score if it is found that the technical was not deserved. The punitive effect of the technical is the only thing at issue.

2) The NBA has a process for appealing technical fouls, precisely because their are financial penalties and suspensions attached. The NBA game has not become ungovernable.

It is odd(or perhaps just amusing) that a monopolist would afford more rights than a government of, by and for the People.

Blogger SmittyBanton -- 2/12/2007 7:41 PM  

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