How public policy is like officiating the “Big Game”

The “Big Game” (the NFL frowns on the unauthorized use of its trademarked title for its championship game) is about two hours from kickoff as I begin this post.  This year’s spectacle feature the New England Patriots and the New York Giants.  Most who are even casually aware of football lore know that this year’s game is a rematch of the 2008 championship between these same two teams.  In the previous game, the Giants mounted a historic last-minute drive led by the young Eli Manning (back when he was mainly known as Peyton’s kid brother) to defeat the previously-undefeated Patriots.

There was one play in particular that stuck out in that historic drive as relayed in the book Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports are Played and Games are Won.  The Giants were trailing by four points with time running out.  They had the ball on a 3rd-and-five situation on their own 44-yard line.   A defensive hold would have clinched the game for New England.  On the 3rd down play, Manning was pressured almost immediately.  He scrambled, and he escaped what looked sure to be a sack.  He then converted a 32-yard prayer to the seldom-used David Tyree for a first down.  The Giants went on to score a touchdown and win the game.  Steve Sabol, president of NFL films, called the pass “the greatest play in Super Bowl history.”  It was Tyree’s last catch in the NFL.

But, should it have happened?  Taking a look at the play, many believe that Manning should have been ruled “in the grasp” – a call commonly used by NFL officials to rule a quarterback down and the play stopped.  In the grasp is used to protect quarterbacks from injury when a play has little to no chance of further success.  Even Mike Carey, the referee of that game and widely-regarded as one of the league’s best, said:

“Half a second longer and I would’ve had to [call him in the grasp].  If stayed in my original position, I would have whistled it.”

Some speculate – though Carey disagrees – that the call would have been whistled dead had it not been in that Super game played in the Bowl-like stadium.

This tendency to “swallow the whistle” at the end of the game is sometimes referred to psychological circles as Omission Bias.  We often view acts of omission, or passively allowing events to occur, more casually than acts of commission – even when omission is actually the wrong decision.

Later, the Scorecasting authors related similar instances in baseball, basketball, and one stand out story in tennis.  A line judge in the 2009 Women’s US Open famously called a foot fault on Serena Williams in a crucial situation of the championship match.  Foot faults are seldom called, especially in such crucial situations.  But, it was the correct call even though it cost Williams a vital point.  Adding insult to injury, Williams then unleashed a tirade on the officials that resulted in a penalty point that just happened to be the final point of the match.  Williams lost the final point of the match without a serve or a volley.

The irony is many acknowledge that Carey made the wrong (non)call at the “right” time.  Whereas, the tennis line judge and chair umpire made the correct call.  Carey was widely hailed for his restraint. He continues to officiate NFL games (and very well, Carey is indeed one of the best).  The tennis judges stopped officiating grand slam tennis events for several years in the wake of public backlash from their correct call.

Public officials often find themselves scenarios not too dissimilar.  When faced with situations in which they have to make decisions quickly, with much public scrutiny, or with less-than-perfect data, they often choose not to make any decision.  After all, if something bad happens, at least it is because of nothing that they choose overtly.  We may not have a billion people watching us.  But, people are watching.  And, some of them have vested interests, and we may know them personally.  Those decisions require active judgement and, sometimes, courage.

Does passing the buck, or “swallowing the whistle,” really absolve anyone if things go awry?  Are we blameless when we have the power to change but choose to pass?  Our cognitive biases tend to lead us that way.  Like Carey, sometimes we feel that the best call is no call.  But, that process is not inherently rational.  By not making a decision, we are in fact making a decision to not do anything.  It is somewhat similar to risk aversion in which we decline to choose options with greater chances of success simply because there are smaller, but significant chances of failure.  Much like the big game, often times it is easier to just “let them play” than to make the call with all eyes watching – even if it is the right call.