“When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression."
June 18, 2019 7:29 AM   Subscribe

Author Michael Lewis has a new{NYT] podcast called[FT] "Against The Rules" [spotify, apple, stitcher] that's all about referees and refereeing

Michael Lewis Makes Boring Stuff Interesting [WSJ]
From the Mueller report to the college cheating scandal, why we’re all obsessed with fairness
The Era Of Attacking The Referee

This American Life: Hoop Reams - "Writer Michael Lewis takes us inside the world of NBA refereeing. He explains how protests about unfair calls have increased in recent years. However, at the same time, hard evidence suggests referees have only gotten better and better at making good calls. Lewis says this is actually indicative of a larger trend in America — people distrusting authorities, judges and referees of all kinds. "

Transcript: Michael Lewis on MIB
- "RITHOLTZ: What you — what’s your pet thesis?

LEWIS: My pet thesis is referees have a hard time the more unequal the environment they’re refereeing is. So if you have two people who were just — who are basically the same power, money and so on, it’s easy to ref that situation compared to having Lebron James versus a benchwarmer. And — and I think it’s — the pressure — one of the sources the pressure on referees is — is inequality in the society.

Another source of pressure is — is technology. I mean, that — that when they screw up now, it’s all over the — it’s all over the Internet. And — and people who are upset by whatever the mistake was can gather together to cause more trouble for the referee."

Undermining judges, scientists and journalists is designed to create societies where the powerful can do what they like

cf:
At the NBA Replay Center, the league's most scrutinized employees aim to get it right
The Great Escape: How Credit Raters Ducked Reform
Americans need the CFPB now more than ever
posted by the man of twists and turns (20 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
Twitter is good at a lot of things; people who have large megaphones already underestimate its value and overestimate how much it needs more top-down governance. It, and social media more generally, have been fantastic for allowing lesser-known voices to be heard. Picking on social media seems to be a pet cause of white authors and professional opiners; I wish that they would consider how biased they are both because of their position and because their concerns are generally considered important by traditional media.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:44 AM on June 18 [2 favorites]


That said, I think the idea of a referee, generally, is fascinating. In the law, people think about things like this a lot, but starting from legal assumptions and structures. So it is very very interesting to hear it from a different starting point. Thanks for posting!
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:44 AM on June 18


It's still too new to have made an impact on the podcast, but it's worth poking your head into the current refereeing issues in the Women's World Cup.

The main point (which gets lost often) is that there are recent rule changes which have been implemented for the first time at this World Cup. When that is mixed with video review, inexperienced and unskilled referees, language barriers between refs and players, and a long history of more permissive play, you end up with day after day of odd, game-changing decisions being made.
posted by suckerpunch at 8:19 AM on June 18 [2 favorites]


I haven't listened to the podcasts yet, but I hope he gets at an issue near and dear to my heart: the corrosion of the authority of, well, the authorities on things. I know that was clunky, but please hear me out.

It seems as though, 30-35 years ago, a reporter who made things up would never get another job in reporting or writing in general. Scientists who either willfully or negligently misrepresented their area of expertise or research would be drummed out of the academy*. Quacks would be tarred and feathered. There were lines in the sand against politicization of the executive branch, violations of which would be prosecuted.

When an authority, whether Walter Cronkite, the CDC, or a local newspaper, made a claim, the public was overwhelmingly disposed to believe it. They did so because they had faith that the 'referees' of whatever area was under discussion actively policed what their members said, if for no other reason than to preserve their own reputation.

Since that time the profusion of industry groups and think tanks, the starvation of the academy, and the increasing toothlessness of regulation have allowed misrepresentation and outright falsehood a freer and freer pass. Even patently self-interested mendacity (Trump tax cut? Iraq War? Great Recession?) gets a shrug and no one is sanctioned, much less prosecuted. Finding truth in complex systems and realities is hard, and the public seems to have internalized helplessness with regard to it. They have come to believe that truth is a thing to be litigated among interested parties, and that absolute standards are fantastical.

We cannot enjoy the fruits of (even long-settled!) knowledge if we come to believe that knowledge itself is shifting and illusory. This is at the root of the vast majority of our (and others') society's dysfunction.

* The tobacco and oil lobbies were way out in front of these developments, and were likely the blueprint followed by interested privilege in the years since.
posted by sensate at 8:44 AM on June 18 [14 favorites]


As a fan of lower league UK soccer, I subscribe to the late great Steven Wells' opinion on referees. From that article --

Refs are like traffic wardens — incredibly valuable public servants who are soft targets of a dumb, unthinking sheep-like consensus. And just as traffic wardens perform a vital task in keeping the planet-raping speedophile car filth in check, so referees are crucial to the very existence of the sport. That's why I cringe whenever I hear some triple-chinned has-been former red-card magnet deride a ref for "thinking he's the most important person on the pitch". The ref is the most important person on the pitch — the most important person in the entire sport.

Undermine the authority of the ref and the entire structure of the sport collapses. And what rushes to fill the vacuum? The Corinthian values of the millionaire brats who play the game? The free-market amorality of the owners? The bumbling blazered bureaucracy? Only the referee remains pure of motive and entirely dedicated to the fundamentals of the game.

Which is why the Respect campaign doesn't go far enough. The referee should be omnipotent and beyond question. Even when the ref is wrong — totally wrong, magnificently wrong, egregiously, almost-certainly-been-bribed catastrophically wrong — the ref is right. We need to instill a culture where to challenge a ref's authority is considered the sporting equivalent of picking one's nose in front the Queen.

posted by BigCalm at 9:13 AM on June 18 [11 favorites]


Hmmmmmm, cautiously optimistic.

sees the latest ep is the podcast features Malcolm Gladwell.

[caution intensifies]
posted by Reyturner at 9:46 AM on June 18 [20 favorites]


Man. While I love and definitely agree with the thesis that people generally are starting to be less willing to trust authorities and supposed impartial 3rd parties, the "This American Life" episode, despite having the awesomeness that is Ramona Shelburne, is so bad and wrong. He gets access to Steve Kerr, but then flatly says "players get fined for talking about refereeing, so we won't be talking to them". WHAT?! That's terrible. These players are the party you actually need to talk to, since you're pinpointing their behavior and then trying to draw conclusions from how you think they're behaving.

Terrible, terrible, terrible. There are tons of former players to talk to. Ray Allen is basically retired. Dirk. Tony Parker. Dwyane Wade! You have a segment where you're talking about Lebron's behavior, but you don't talk to one of his best, if not his best friend? How about at least talking to people who play basketball?!

Let me just say this. So much of what people think they see with regard to basketball, especialyy in some large online sports communities, is completely wrong. It's because most people don't bother to play the damn game. So you don't understand its norms, it's limits, its issues and what is actually occurring.

Even the refs don't get it at times. For example, even though it has gotten much better, for a while there refs were giving guys technical fouls for hanging on the rim after a dunk. Well if you've never dunked in a game, you have no idea how precarious it is up there once you leap and fly through the air. I commented on it years ago but instead of digging up that post, I'll just refer you to game 6 of this year's finals, and one player mentioned a ton of times on the episode that his kid is emulating, Klay Thompson, who tore his ACL falling after trying a 2-handed dunk and coming down awkwardly. Refs finally got taught how to properly ref that, and it has gotten a lot better.

Personally I think that players like Lebron and the "stars" are arguing with refs because they have the most experience with the game, so they know what is actually happening. I mean for starters, it's like the NFL in that you could call something on every 'play'. So down low there is pushing, holding, grabbing, elbowing. Going through the lane there is slapping, tugging, pushing off. On the perimeter there are moving screens, grab the defender and whip him off you, and holding the offensive player as he tries to run around a screen.

So at a level, players who are experienced (the stars mentioned) know what is going on during a game, and have a problem that announcers often reference, where refs are calling one thing on one end, and not calling it on the other end (of the court).

Additionally, when you get guys like Lebron, far from thinking he's "entitled" or whatever the episode is trying to convince you of with that neat intersection pedestrian/auto study, they are super knowledgeable about the game beyond even their own plays. Guys like Lebron can remember plays from high school, and famously can remember entire sequences of games on command, and often knows where the players on the other team are supposed to be and tells them in-game, because he identifies what play they are running. He's also mentioned he's studied the games(plural, not individual guy's games) of those who came before him. So he's looking at calls using a basketball flow spanning years, decades, encompassing thousands of games and tens of thousands of calls. And when it doesn't match up, when it's out of line, he'll say something. And of course you have some gamesmanship where you try to get a call you know you shouldn't get, so that factors in as well.

But mostly it's just sad to see this whole commentary have so much behind it, and be so, so wrong. But that's what happens when you have an entire league centered around the play of athletes, then you neglect to talk to the actual people who's behavior you're attempting to critique.
posted by cashman at 9:52 AM on June 18 [13 favorites]


When an authority, whether Walter Cronkite, the CDC, or a local newspaper, made a claim, the public was overwhelmingly disposed to believe it. They did so because they had faith that the 'referees' of whatever area was under discussion actively policed what their members said, if for no other reason than to preserve their own reputation.

I think you're right about the negative effect of certain psuedo-intellectual take-generators. However, I think this perception of the past is quite idealistic. More likely, people believed these sources because they had literally no other sources of information. They were often wrong or corrupted by commercial forces. (See, for just one example, the dangers of smoking.)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:55 AM on June 18 [7 favorites]


He's also mentioned he's studied the games(plural, not individual guy's games) of those who came before him. So he's looking at calls using a basketball flow spanning years, decades, encompassing thousands of games and tens of thousands of calls. And when it doesn't match up, when it's out of line, he'll say something. And of course you have some gamesmanship where you try to get a call you know you shouldn't get, so that factors in as well.

Schilling calls QuesTec system 'a joke', 2003
Schilling is a perfectionist. He has every pitch he's ever thrown to a batter on video and he studies them for hours and hours before each start. He also has a book on every call he's seen an umpire make.

"As someone who relies on command and preparation and doing the things that I do to get ready for a ballgame, consistency is the most important thing in the world for me from an umpire,'' he said.
...

Umpire Mike Winters, part of the crew working the Arizona-San Diego series, acknowledged after Saturday night's game that the evaluation system is affecting games.

"Major league baseball wants to have everyone conform to the strike zone as this machine says it is,'' Winters said. "Everybody's working to try to do that. Borderline pitches, this machine says they're balls. If I call them a strike and the machine doesn't, I'm getting downgraded. I've got to worry about my own livelihood.''

Pitches on the corners might not get the benefit of the doubt they once did.

"In the old days, we were taught `Go get them. Call those pitches strikes,''' Winters said. "Today it's the exact opposite: 'Hey, if it's off the plate it's a ball. I don't care if it's a quarter-inch or an eighth-inch, it's a ball.' It goes against what we used to be taught, but major league baseball pays my salary, and they're the boss.''
I can't help but understand Schilling, and other's, complaints as merely that they aren't getting the leniency and benefit they used to get.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:07 AM on June 18 [1 favorite]


I listened to every episode as they aired.

This was one of the most thought-provoking podcasts I've heard. The author identifies a issue he has seen, presents case studies, and his conclusions.

I did not agree with each episode, but as a whole, I think they are absolutely fascinating. They paint a picture of how the ideas of regulatory capture are influencing every aspect of our lives, not just the government.

Here is the conclusion I took from the series. Maybe we don't actually want things to be fair. Maybe fairness is an ideal that we don't all share. Maybe, because the rising tide has NOT lifted all ships, individuals are becoming more divided, more interested in helping only their in-group, more interested in their own survival at the expense of the greater good.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is an opinion. "The arc of the moral universe is long and therefore wobbles all over the place" is another opinion. I believe this podcast is evidence for the latter.
posted by rebent at 10:09 AM on June 18 [3 favorites]


I can't help but understand Schilling, and other's, complaints as merely that they aren't getting the leniency and benefit they used to get.

I guess it's been a while since I watched some Major League Baseball on TV, because I was rather shocked recently to see a little white box (strike zone) imposed on the live feed. My immediate thought was, "well that's stupid, if inevitable". Stupid, because it's just one more incremental encroachment of science into something that is an art -- baseball, that is, sports in general. Inevitable because that's where we are these days -- cursed by a sort of whispered ideology that there's a purely scientific solution to everything. There isn't.

A couple of weekends ago, the Canadian Grand Prix was decided not on the track but in a huddle behind some replay monitors (and a bunch of telemetry screens). So what looked to me like a guy trying to keep his car on the track suddenly became a few stewards deciding there was more to it than that. Not saying they were wrong (by all accounts, they were just doing their jobs). Am saying, I don't f***ing care. The race should be decided on the track in front of billions watching on TV, not by a few bureaucrats in a small room.

Also this. From a recent Guardian piece concerning German responses to antisemitism which concludes with the following paragraph (emphasis mine):

The first big challenge to modern Germany’s liberal order came from the far left, with the urban guerillas of the 1970s. One noted legal thinker then observed that the democratic, liberal state depends on conditions that it cannot itself guarantee. In other words, the written rules are not in themselves enough to hold society together. They must be supplemented by unwritten moral understandings. Finding and strengthening those was the task facing Germany in the 1970s, successfully accomplished then; it must be resumed now. It is also the task that faces a horribly divided Britain today.

My point being, I guess, that we're being deluded by increasingly precise science (and related rules and regs) into thinking that such concerns as honesty, ethics, integrity, fair play, experienced judgment just aren't relevant anymore. They are. And such misguided thinking is f***ing up way more than just games.
posted by philip-random at 10:36 AM on June 18 [2 favorites]


I guess it's been a while since I watched some Major League Baseball on TV, because I was rather shocked recently to see a little white box (strike zone) imposed on the live feed. My immediate thought was, "well that's stupid, if inevitable". Stupid, because it's just one more incremental encroachment of science into something that is an art -- baseball, that is, sports in general. Inevitable because that's where we are these days -- cursed by a sort of whispered ideology that there's a purely scientific solution to everything. There isn't.

Tell that to all the people who are the opposite of "I guess it's been a while since I watched some Major League Baseball on TV". There is a reason why some umps (Angel Hernandez and CB Bucknor immediately come to mind) are household names. "Umpshow" comes up dozens's of times every in every chat for every game, all 2500ish games a year. If it were up to the fans who actually watch the games 6-7 days a week, we'd already have robo-umps.
posted by sideshow at 11:01 AM on June 18 [4 favorites]


The race should be decided on the track in front of billions watching on TV, not by a few bureaucrats in a small room.

The distinction between hard but sincere racing and misbehavior will always be hard to find and uncertain, and lots of people disagree about that specific call, but deciding not to penalize Vettel is still those same bureaucrats deciding.

If drivers aren't going to be penalized for misbehavior, there may likely come a time not too much farther into this season when Mercedes' optimal strategy will be to decide it on the track like Senna and Prost did.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 11:23 AM on June 18 [4 favorites]


I think you're right about the negative effect of certain psuedo-intellectual take-generators. However, I think this perception of the past is quite idealistic. More likely, people believed these sources because they had literally no other sources of information. They were often wrong or corrupted by commercial forces. (See, for just one example, the dangers of smoking.)

You make a good point about the relative paucity of sources of information, which made inaccuracy or mendacity even more glaring, and couldn't therefore be allowed to stand. These days, we indulge in multiple marketplaces of ideas when simple factual determinations would suffice, and act like it's not Equal Time for Idiots.

Yes, a lot of societal consensus* was, for lack of a worse term, wrong, but it generally wasn't willful or due to incentive. There was the expected Scholastic resistance to improvement, but the discourse had to at least seem to be in good faith.

An good illustration of how things were at the time is the case of Dan Rather, the absolute embodiment of those standards. He left his career with barely a whimper for telling a very (very, very) plausible and probably accurate tale of the President's National Guard days because he had been duped by a source into accepting documentation that could not be verified. Note that he was not himself accused of fabricating anything, or of any personal animus, but of passing along information that he hadn't exhaustively forensically examined. In his day, if you Got Big Things Wrong and it was in any way Your Fault, that was it. You were done. And so he left the stage.

* Of course, the lack, and lack of reach, of information sources often allowed consensus to be inferred where it did not exist.
posted by sensate at 11:58 AM on June 18 [2 favorites]


but deciding not to penalize Vettel is still those same bureaucrats deciding.

I don't really want to get into the intricasies of it, but my take would be along the lines of what occurred falling into the realm of "racing incident" and thus by definition, not within the purview of the bureaucrats to get involved (ie: there was no actual car to car contact, and though Vettel did leave the course briefly, he gained nothing by it -- it was the design of the track itself that didn't allow Hamilton to get past -- he said, getting intricate with it).

As for the Senna-Prost stuff of days past (also Schumacher-various-others), I believe that speaks to what I was getting at toward the end of my comment

that we're being deluded by increasingly precise science (and related rules and regs) into thinking that such concerns as honesty, ethics, integrity, fair play, experienced judgment just aren't relevant anymore.

That is, sports are not a science. They're an art. And an art requires some grace. Which also speaks to

If it were up to the fans who actually watch the games 6-7 days a week, we'd already have robo-umps.

and this would be a really dumb way to go*, because it's seeking to impose perfection on something that isn't perfectible. Or as one of Richard Nixon's top aides put it to him in 1960 when JFK won the presidency via dubious stuff in Illinois and Texas. "They stole this one fair and square, Dick. We'll get 'em next time."

* also, how long before there's controversy regarding who's programming the computers etc. Everything is game-able -- that's the problem.
posted by philip-random at 12:52 PM on June 18


That is, sports are not a science. They're an art.

Yeah, but we're not talking about sports. We're talking about measurements within sports, which ought to be a science.

If a strike zone is defined by the rules, it should be defined as accurately as possible, and that means using computers rather than human eyes, if those computers are better. The definition can always be tweaked if the zone needs to change size (as it has in the past).

There's a vast gulf between calling a penalty and determining if it were intentional, versus a binary in/out measurement like a strike. Football should probably rely on referees for holding calls, but computers for first downs, et cetera.
posted by explosion at 1:47 PM on June 18 [5 favorites]


This sounds like another podcast to put in my queue, thanks!

This idea of what things should be refereed by computer vs. the human is fascinating. I see an analogy to Zeno's Dichotomy Paradox, with every advance in technology we get a little closer to perfection, and yet I'm not sure if achieving this will ever be possible.

As technology improves, don't humans just get better at parsing the room left for interpretation? You will lose 3:30 of your life if you watch this video, so don't watch it, but it's a real time playing out of an out-of-bounds call that the refs have a hard time figuring out via instant replay.

You could envision a technological solution that solves all of the issues seen here: add more cameras, improve the frame rate, get more computers to process the data, put lasers on the sidelines, add a sensor in the basketball, the list goes on.

And yet, we are humans. Do you really think there's a holy grail of technological perfection that we'll be satisfied with? I see NBA announcers in the year 2049 being fluent in the differences between the version mark 32 officiating robot and why last year's mark 31 was actually more accurate.

You'll then have an "opposition" league starting up that promises "Year 2000" rules with human refs and no instant-replay for anything. This league will become more popular than the NBA and the anti-technology sentiment will help spark the 2050 human rebellion against automation.

(Netflix, I got the spec script all ready to go, let's do this!)
posted by jeremias at 3:12 PM on June 18 [1 favorite]


As a side note, do we know who originated the "When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression." quote? This 2016 link looks into it.
posted by AlSweigart at 4:25 PM on June 18


The commentary in here on sports is a great conversation to have, but seems to be happening devoid of the context of the rest of the podcast. I don't think this podcast is about the quality of refereeing, but rather the bias in refereeing. It focuses much less on whether refs make the right or wrong call, and more on how those wrong calls are disproportionately assigned to those based on their power.

The tagline, and I think the thesis, of the whole podcast is "Don't pick sides. Unless it's my side." This is the through-line for each of these episodes, where he makes the claim that many people believe referees should be biased in their favor.

Across society, we've seen a rise of authoritarianism. Big Man In Charge, who will protect us. Be on his team, and it's OK that the rules aren't fair, that the deck is stacked. Or maybe it's because fairness is disappearing, people are turning to someone who can protect them in this unfair world.

We tried something, starting with the French revolution. We tried to create a system where each individual would get a fair shake, have equal opportunity. But the elite have used their power to slowly pick away at this, to create unfair systems so that citizens have no choice but to pick a team to fight for.

I've typed what I remember from each episode -- unfortunately there are no transcripts or real summaries that I can find.

Episode 1: Ref, You Suck! - Statistics are being used to eliminate racial bias and home team advantage from ref calls. Despite this decrease in favoritism and bias by almost every conceivable metric, fans perceive referees as more biased than ever. Suggestion: the players who benefited most from bias were the superstars. Fans want refs to be biased in favor of their own superstars

Episode 2: The Seven Minute Rule - the industry tasked with servicing loans deceives its clients to keep them trapped in the system. The CFPB is a watchdog that had its teeth pulled. Interview with Elisabeth Warren.

Episode 3: The Alex Kogan Experience - Newspapers have eliminated all their ombudsmen, the people who refereed "truth." Also, dictionaries have eliminated committees of citizens that help define words. The narrative thread also includes the Cambridge Analytica theft of Facebook data. (sensate, this is the epsiode for you!)

Episode 4: The Hand of Leonardo - the industry responsible for telling art dealers and buyers which paintings are original and which are forgeries have been completely captured by both the buyers and sellers who all want very much for painting to be authentic.

Episode 5: The Neutral - An interview with someone tasked with arbitrating for massive damage claims, like the 9/11 victim's fund. Lewis looks into his history and character to try to learn why this man consistently makes both sides happy.

Episode 6: Baby Judge School - an investigation into how judges are trained to be impartial, including looking at new programs to help them identify unconscious bias. Also in this episode is a discussion of how judges are being seen as partisan, and are taking to social media, and the impact this has on their mental states.

Episode 7: The Magic Shoebox - an investigation of how the Stock Industry, an industry created specifically to enable fair and clear exchange of stocks, makes more money renting back-door access to high-frequency traders than it does from being a stock exchange. This was the most important episode in the series and should have been the very first.

Episode 8: Live interview by Malcom Gladwell - a conversation about the podcast, and Lewis' conclusions.
posted by rebent at 7:12 AM on June 19 [6 favorites]


> We cannot enjoy the fruits of (even long-settled!) knowledge if we come to believe that knowledge itself is shifting and illusory. This is at the root of the vast majority of our (and others') society's dysfunction.

How We All Became Richard Nixon
posted by CheapB at 12:37 PM on June 19


« Older Theories on Māori moa hunting methods, based on...   |   Brace! Brace! Brace! Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments