Photo by Dave Mandel for Sherdog.com
At UFC 103, Vitor Belfort made a triumphant return to the UFC Octagon, dispatching former middleweight champion Rich Franklin in the very first round. Belfort knocked Franklin silly, landing a glancing punch to drop him and then finishing him with three hard, blatantly illegal shots to the back of the head.
Joining my media colleagues at the post fight press conference, I awaited what I was sure would be a storm of controversy. Franklin had lost by foul play - what would Dana White say? Would he criticize the officiating? Would he announce a rematch so we could see a bout contested under the unified rules? What would be Belfort's excuse for his illegal strikes?
Instead, unbelievably, there was silence. Worse than silence - Belfort was actually awarded Knockout of the Night and given a significant cash bonus. Not a single question was asked to anyone on stage about the illegal blows that had just finished a high profile main event.
Why was the media silent? Why didn't referee Yves Lavigne penalize the illegal blows? The answer can be found in the great new book Scorecasting by Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim.
More on omission bias (and a look at the fight's finish) after the break
Watching the end of the fight, it's hard to miss Belfort's final three shots to the head. They are in plain view of referee Yves Lavigne and the world. There's no question they are illegal. So why no action from the official?
According to Wertheim and Moskowitz the issue is omission bias. It turns out that while officials are staggeringly good at their jobs in most sports, their accuracy and the quality of their calls actually goes down the more that's on the line. There is a deep-seated desire to allow the athletes to decide the result of a contest. Consciously or unconsciously, Lavigne made the split second decision that the crowd, the promotion, and even the fighters, wanted to see the bout end decisively. That's omission bias - most officials would rather make no call at all than risk making the wrong one. No one wants the attention post fight to be on the officiating -least of all the referee:
Especially during crucial intervals, officials often take pains not to insinuate themselves into the game. In the NBA there's an unwritten directive: "When the game steps up, you step down." "As much as possible, you gotta let the players determine who wins and loses," says Ted Bernhardt, another long time NBA ref. "It's one of the first things you learn on the job. The fans didn't come to see you. They came to see the athletes."
So, did Lavigne make the right call? The answer depends on your point of view. In Scorecasting, the writers take a look at Shino Tsurubuchi, a lineswoman at the 2009 U.S. Open. Tsurubuchi called a controversial foot fault against Serna Williams in the tournament semi-finals, costing her the match and resulting in a famous, threatening tirade. Although replays shows Tsurubuchi was technically correct, she was widely criticized. People want to watch players play. So, while Lavigne may have made the wrong call according to the rulebook, he made the call the promoter and the fans wanted to see. To NFL official Mike Carey, those kind of calls will extend your career, even if they don't help you sleep at night:
"Making the hard call or the unpopular call, that's where guts are tested, that's the mark of the true official," he says. "You might have a longer career as an official if you back off. But you won't have a more accurate career."