With the NBA playoffs in full swing, emotions are running high among super-fans, inevitably leading to lots of heated arguments about bad referee calls and disputed plays. For instance, when a ball goes out of bounds, it can sometimes be challenging to determine which player touched it last. Both players will undoubtedly argue their opponent touched it last, trying to give possession of the ball to their own team. The other player will just as forcefully argue the opposite. Who is right? According to a new paper in Science Advances, both players are subject to a kind of temporal bias whereby they will perceive themselves touching the ball first. “Our brains tell us that actions generated by ourselves come before simultaneous external events,” the authors write. “Briefly, we have identified what may be a principal cause of arguments in ball games, and it’s about time.”
According to co-author Ty Tang, a graduate student in psychology at Arizona State University, the idea for the study emerged from conversations with his advisor, Michael McBeath, about subjective perception, particularly of time. This naturally evolved into how this subjective perception plays out in sports, specifically arguments over who touched the ball last before it went out of bounds in basketball. Tang proposed a series of three experiments to determine if the players might genuinely experience hitting the ball before their opponents in such scenarios. It wasn’t the chaotic environment of a live basketball game, but it allowed them to control the variables to produce a robust study.
I’ve talked to people across the league about this issue. Players, coaches, referees, union leadership and the league office. Everyone has their position and their theory. I’ve been told the experience level of the referees has dwindled with a number of veteran retirements or reassignments, and that younger officials have thinner skin and won’t allow a healthy dialogue. And a couple more of the top officials are planning retirement or transfers after this season, by the way.
I’ve been told there are more replays and video sharing, and so when referees do make mistakes, the mistakes are magnified. Just as the last-two-minute reports, aka L2Ms, only push officials’ mistakes into a fresh news cycle when nothing can be done about them. And it hurts officials’ reputations. I’ve been told short memories cause issues. For example, the Warriors (and plenty of fans) flipped out during that game in Minnesota because Kevin Durant was called for wrapping up Karl-Anthony Towns as he went to the basket in the final second. Last weekend, the Nets’ Jarrett Allen was wrapped up by the Sixers’ Tobias Harris and it wasn’t called, a mistake acknowledged by the league. The howling was equal for both — everyone wants it both ways.