Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The NBA, Referees, and The Wisdom of Crowds

The NBA has an interesting and quite serious problem these days. The league appears to have a lack of credibility among many fans. Disgraced referee Tim Donaghy claims that some games were intentionally manipulated by the officials, and NBA commissioner David Stern dismisses the claim as the desperate accusations of a criminal. However, many fans question the league's credibility when it comes to the officials. One of the games mentioned by Donaghy (Game 6 of the 2002 Lakers-Kings Western Conference Finals) raises serious questions in the minds of both sportswriters and fans. The commissioner cannot simply dismiss all of this as the fraudulent claims of a criminal. Whether true or not, the real issue is the credibility problem that the NBA has with its own fans.

What should the NBA do about it? Peter Keating has an interesting solution in this month's issue of ESPN: The Magazine. Keating draws on the work of James Surowiecki, the author of the best-selling book, The Wisdom of Crowds. He suggests that perhaps the NBA should allow fans to vote on key calls in an NBA game. After all, Suroweicki and others have shown that the collection of thousands of independent opinions often may yield an answer that is better than the judgment of any particular expert.

Keating's suggestion may sound preposterous, but perhaps there is a different solution that the NBA might experiment with, drawing on the same logic of mass collaboration. Companies in a variety of industries have employed mass collaboration effectively. For the NBA, perhaps fan voting could be used to EVALUATE referees, rather than to actually make calls in a live game. Rather than simply relying on an expert in the league office to judge the competency of officials, perhaps the NBA could take a look at how its millions of fans think referees have performed. Comparing the fans' collective judgment to the ratings by experts could be quite interesting. Not only might it yield informative results, but such a system might go a long way toward restoring the league's credibility in the eyes of its customers.