games

The Quest for Perfection Is Ruining Sports

James Harden of the Houston Rockets and referee Josh Tiven during Sunday’s game against the Golden State Warriors. Photo: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Of all the destructive illusions that the last decade of sports’ technological revolution has provided us, the most pervasive is that some sort of objective truth about games, and even individual plays, can now be discerned. Whether it’s baseball’s Statcast providing the exact exit velocity of every swing, the NFL’s thousands of cameras following every movement, or even soccer’s Video Assistant Referee system (VAR), cutting-edge technology in sports is constantly being harnessed in search of One Definitive Answer, the Platonic ideal of a fair and just game, in which we can always decipher, conclusively, what happened.

This is impossible, of course, as anyone who has ever followed the NFL’s constantly shifting — and oddly existential — definition of something as basic as what counts as a catch. Sports will never give you the closure you want, and striving for it leads only to madness. The introduction of instant replay into sports has proven a Pandora’s box, unleashing all sorts of demons, not least of which are the endless “reviews,” a kind euphemism for “sitting around while nothing is happening.” It’s not a stretch to connect this obsession with a broader trend in sports. They have become more like finance, with hedge-fund managers leveraging math and technology to squeeze out every iota of efficiency and eliminate waste and human error, in order to control for unpredictability. But unpredictability is why we watch sports in the first place.

This sense that technological best practices can somehow bend the inherently chaotic nature of sports to your will, to make them behave, has reached its logical endgame with the current “controversy” going on in Warriors-Rockets NBA Western Conference semifinals. The goal of instant replay was to make sure that no vital series would ever be decided by an official. The result appears to be that series will not be decided by the players and the fates, but by detailed memos and committee meetings.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Rachel Nichols on Monday broke the news that the Rockets, after their Game Seven loss to the Warriors last season in the Western Conference Finals, put together a memo for the league office that argued referee mistakes cost the team the series. “Referees likely changed the eventual NBA champion,” the memo, which was never actually sent (because the Rockets instead presented it to the league in person), claims. “There can be no worse result for the NBA.” Using their, well, let’s call it “proprietary interpretation software” — because that totally sounds like something that would exist in sports in 2019 — the Rockets claimed that bad calls, non-calls, and missed calls cost the Rockets 18.6 points in a Game Seven they lost by nine points. The Rockets went through, play by play, and made sure the league knew that, according to them, if the game had been called right, they would have won.

There are many, many reasons to take issue with the Rockets’ accounting, not least because it takes plays that the league classified as “potential infractions” in their officiating report and interprets them in the best possible light for the Rockets. (On non-calls they felt went against them, they just went ahead and gave themselves 1.1 points, their average half-court points-per-possession number.) But more to the point: In case you’ve forgotten, Game Seven of the 2018 Western Conference Finals was the one where the Rockets, one of the most efficient three-point shooting teams in recent NBA history, went 7-for-44 from three-point range. Seven-for-44! At one point, the Rockets missed 27 consecutive three-point shots, which is difficult to do even if you are trying. The Rockets clanged and clanged and clanged for three hours. Their response was not to say, “we should shoot better”; their response was “the referees should be more perfect.” As Deadspin’s Tom Ley put it:

Ley is referring to Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who is as close to a Billy Beane Moneyball figure as the NBA has had over the last decade. Famously called “Nerd Elvis” by Bill Simmons, Morey has long been the sort of figure genuflected to at the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference, the annual analytical NBA Aspen gaggle where concepts and strategies that have changed the sport have often been hatched. He is the vanguard … though, like with Beane, he’s a vanguard whose ideas have been co-opted by the rest of the league, who have used them to win championships that he so far has been deprived of. Morey is an intelligent man, a legitimate innovator, but it is worth noting that, when you get down to brass tacks and his theories and concepts hit the hardwood, he sounds suspiciously like every fan who has ever thrown back a six-pack and screamed at the television that the refs are screwing him over. The only difference is that Morey has armed himself with math. The memo actually ends with an explicit accusation, saying that veteran officials “exhibit the most bias against our players.” For all his smarts, Morey is, at the end of the day, yelling “fake news.”

This is happening in the middle of another fiercely contested Warriors-Rockets series — Game Two is tonight, and don’t worry, they’re already fighting over the refs in that game too — and one that featured an opener that, in many ways, was less a basketball game than a referendum on officiating itself. The Warriors claim James Harden is constantly flopping and drawing imaginary fouls; Golden State coach Steve Kerr actually opened his press conference the other night by pretending to flop and call a foul on a reporter. Meanwhile, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni claimed the Rockets should have had 20 more free throws, and Chris Paul was actually ejected in the final moments for arguing his own non-call. Houston’s whole strategy revolves around getting foul calls; the Warriors are notoriously one of the most cunning teams in NBA history. Lobbying the refs is as important to their chances of winning as boxing out.

So: The Warriors think they’re getting screwed, and the Rockets think they’re getting screwed. This makes them like every other sports team since the beginning of time. The difference now is that they both truly, profoundly believe — and have their own statistical, analytical arguments, boosted by exhaustive research and empirical evidence — that the truth is on their side, and that they can prove it. They are trying to solve sports. But you can’t solve sports. Sometimes a referee is going to make a good call, and sometimes he is going to make a bad call. The only thing you can count on is that if it goes against your team, you’ll be convinced the call was the wrong one. The Rockets are trying to back this up with data. But their data is theirs, interpreted how they wish, in a way that makes them look like the victims. Is that what all this innovation has been about? Twisting data to benefit your side? Technology was supposed to get us all closer to that objective truth, but all it’s doing is backing up one’s personal, subjective interpretation. We all see what we want to see. Technology doesn’t widen the perspective on truth. It just makes it easier to make up your own.

Will Leitch’s Games column runs weekly. Email him at will.leitch@nymag.com.

The Quest for Perfection Is Ruining Sports