Monday, September 3, 2012

Replacement refs, player safety, and causation

Warren and Mike each discuss the idea of NFL players staging a sympathy strike in solidarity with the NFL referees' union, with player safety as the purported hook. This also has been a recurring theme in media criticisms of the NFL--that the league, despite its purported concerns for concussions and player safety, is jeopardizing player safety by using replacement refs of questionable ability, and all over a relatively small-value labor dispute. Mike's e-mailer captures it when he insists that the NFL has an argument "the minute an NFL player is injured because of a bad call."

But this arguments suffers from serious causation problems. How exactly does a bad call "cause" the injury in any legal, or even logical, way? I do not see how using unskilled replacement refs creates a greater risk of injury or how replacement refs will cause more injuries with their terrible calls and non-calls. The likelihood of an incorrect call or non-call on a given play does not affect the likelihood of an injury occurring on that play. In other words, whether a penalty is called (correctly or incorrectly) after a play is over does not affect whether an injury occurs on the play itself. If DB A hits Receiver X coming across the middle, Receiver X may or may not be hurt on the play, whether or not a penalty is called on the play and whether or not a penalty should have been called; if DE B hits QB Y, QB Y may or may not be hurt, whether or not a penalty is called or should have been called. In no sense did the incorrect call or non-call "cause" the injuries on those plays.

Plus, even with the regular refs, injuries regularly occurred on plays in which no penalty was called, with the league coming in and imposing fines after the fact for certain conduct. Also, most "bad calls" that refs are going to make or not make it are unconnected to injury; that missed Offsides is not going to increase anyone's risk of injury. So, at best, we are talking about a small subset of calls and plays. And, of course, lots of injuries occur on plays in which no penalty should be called because no one did anything against the rules; they just played an inherently risky game.

The only conceivable argument is that the replacement refs will have less control of the game and will less accurately call certain dangerous conduct (late hits, hits to the head, hits on defenseless receivers), causing players to try to get away with more knowing that they will not be caught or penalized, resulting in more injuries. Several problems with this. First, it is necessarily cumulative; it will not allow for proof that one injury was caused by the refs, but only proof that a series of bad calls incentivized a given play on which an injury occurred. That is a tricky logical chain to navigate. Second, it is impossible to show that DB A wouldn't have gone high on the receiver even if he knew there was a greater chance of being penalized. So, again, we have the problem of a causal link between some bad call(s) and the injury itself.

Third, and most importantly, the argument assumes the replacement refs' awfulness will run in the direction of being more lax and giving players more incentive to engage in dangerous or injury-threatening play. But it may be just as likely that the refs will err on the side of over-calling penalties, imposing a disincentive on players as to how they play. If the replacements improperly call lots of unwarranted penalties on hits to the QB, defensive players are going to ease up on anything close, not wanting to risk a penalty. The result is bad football because the refs are just getting things wrong and because defenders are losing the opportunity to make plays. But the result is not a reduction in player safety--in fact, player safety would seem to increase, as QBs are going to take fewer hits.

At some level, player safety has become an unfortunate talisman for the players and for the media to trot out over everything. And there are lots of reasons not to want the NFL to allow less-skilled officials onto the field. But the leap to connect bad officiating to player safety is a long one that is not obviously warranted, at least not ex ante