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Tail Wags Dog -- In Some Leagues

Skip's post on Tuesday along with the NBA ref scandal brings to the front differences in league management of their referees. All referees-umps will make mistakes whether calling balls and strikes, pass interference, or goal tending -- such errors are embedded in the process of what they do. The presence of error does not mean that all such errors are just random or not assignable to specific causes (to use Deming-like terms), and, therefore, capable of being reduced. Pro sports league differ considerably in their ability and commitment to reducing these errors through referee evaluation.

The Hamermesh paper provides systematic evidence of what a friend of mine closely connected to an MLB ump transmitted on a personal level many years ago -- MLB umps can and do pursue personal agendas -- whether those agendas are based on ego, racial bias, dislike of a particular manager or player. Of course, such personal indulgence is what one would expect from a league where umps consistently and effectively resist performance evaluation. When the league started using statistical data on balls and strikes as an evaluation tool, the umps went ape. Now, a new technology from QuesTec can plot ball and strikes in 3-D with quite a bit of precision (see NYT article). Not surprisingly, "the system is a sensitive issue with the umpires union."

The NBA, despite David Stern's protestations to the contrary, has also struggled with referee evaluation -- a topic highlighted by Mark Cuban (with an axe to grind) but also many in the media (see Bill Simmons) and former refs (podcast with Mike Mathis). In contrast, the NFL is much more rigorous in its evaluation and what this evaluation means for continuance and assignment.

The differences in referee management extend well beyond evaluation to hiring practices. While the NFL appears to seek out and employ individuals with relatively stable and calm demeanor (calm assertive, I guess, in the "Dog Whisperer's" words), the NBA and MLB ranks appear filled with a lot of volatile personalities -- Donaghy and Joey Crawford as Exhibits A and B.

Why such institutionalized differences? Stronger referee unions in NBA and MLB? Sure, but that just backs the question up one level. How did they get to be powerful enough to not just influence compensation but hiring and evaluation practices? Maybe the answer speaks more to league managerial skill. With a couple of minor blips along the way, the NFL seems to understand that compensating refs well is small potatoes -- what you do not do is cede managerial control over the product. That is what MLB, and to a lesser extent the NBA, have struggled with.