Tony Brothers’ face has something about it. It emanates a sense of injustice before the proceedings even start. Whatever happens in a game he’s officiating is smeared with conspiracy theories, aggrievedness and a general desire to hate everything that is noble in life. Humans are inherently flawed and suffer from many cognitive biases which I have to imagine fuel the collective’s disdain for Tony Brothers. Specifically, the availability heuristic, conjunction bias and illusory correlation effects.
The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision. That mental shortcut is Tony Brothers. He is available in our memories as the person to visualize when the refs are blowing it in any game, whether he’s reffing or not. So when he does actually ref, feelings are inflamed far more than usual. And when he does blow calls, like he did in Game 3, the impressions he’s made become more vivid, and is fodder for the conjunction bias. His face becomes an avatar for injustice and an emblem of professional malpractice.
A conjunction bias occurs when it is assumed that specific conditions are more probable than a single general one. We would rather believe that Tony Brothers and his ilk are out there to game the game and screw the Raptors in a complex quest to suppress the lone Canadian team to bolster US TV ratings, than we are to believe that whatever calls he’s getting wrong are part of standard error in any normal probabilistic distribution of events. The single general condition is much less exciting to our testosterone than the lower probability one of collusion. However, once in a while when a ref does make a bad call which hurts the Raptors, the illusory correlation bias kicks in. And that kicks in hard.
Illusory correlation is a phenomenon of perceiving a relationship between variables (typically people, events, or behaviors) even when no such relationship exists. This is the “Oh God Tony Brothers is reffing and we’re going to lose” mentality. Though he may have screwed us in the past, it’s more likely it’s because he’s a shitty ref than he is out there to get the Raptors. The statistical correlation between Brothers officiating a Raptors game and us losing are probably average, but it sure doesn’t feel like it because we tend to manufacture relationships which don’t exist.
Compared to his peers Tony Brothers calls 0.2 more fouls a game in the regular season and 0.8 fouls less per game in the playoffs. In the playoffs he also calls more fouls in favor of the visiting team than he does the home team, whatever that’s worth. Basically, there’s very little egregious about Tony Brothers (other than his general countenance). You could make an argument that an NBA referee can very subtly affect the outcome of a game without showing up as an outlier in aggregated statistics. That is true and as we found out with Tim Donaghy and his Allen Iverson take, it happens. On a micro level the NBA could guide refs to extend series to get additional gates. I don’t know how referees are incentivized to talk intelligently about this. If they’re getting paid per game then they sure will be incentivized to extend series. If they’re not, well, that’s another type of incentive to shorten series (i.e., work less). It’s all too complex and convoluted for me to bother with because almost all the time, the better team will win the series regardless of officiating, making ref talk a mechanism to generate social media engagement than actually talk about basketball.
On a macro level, I’d say there are far more effective ways to introduce this tilt in outcomes than officiating like the draft, the schedule, agents, etc. Refereeing just seems too obvious and unsustainable an option to pick when shifting NBA landscapes.
Make sure to check the preview for tonight’s Game 4 where the officials are Zach Zarba, Tom Washington, Karl Lane and Mitchell Ervin. They all may be crooks. But there’s a much higher likelihood that they’re not.
Side note: Wanna RR hoodie?