Study Of NBA Refs Highlights ‘Napoleon Complex’ | 90.9 WBUR

November 8, 2014  | 3 min read

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Have you ever watched an NBA game and thought that there was something slightly off about the officiating? Pepperdine University Associate Professor of Economics Paul Gift has done that. Along with Florida State University Assistant Professor of Sports Law Ryan Rodenberg, Gift set out to investigate whether the height of the officiating crew had any effect on how many personal fouls were called during a game.

Gift joined Bill Littlefield to discuss the study, titled “Napoleon Complex: Height Bias Among NBA Referees.”

BL: You studied more than 4,000 regular season games and that found the shortest referee crews, those averaging six-feet or less, called .147 more personal fouls per game than taller crews. Is that enough to actually affect anything?

PG:  In a way it depends on your perspective. It didn’t seem to impact total points scored in a game. Yet it did impact free throw attempts and free throws made.

So there might be some sort of substitution effect going on as better scorers get in foul trouble given that it is likely impacting free throws but not impacting total points scored in a game. It also depends on your perspective, in that 3.6 percent seems like a small number but another way of looking at it is that this translates into possibly one additional foul every five-and-change quarters.

BL: So how do you know the shorter refs are getting it wrong? Couldn’t they actually be doing a better job than the taller refs?

PG: Yes, absolutely. We’re definitely not looking at right or wrong here. The basic question was, might the NBA be an interesting real-world laboratory to look at observable manifestations of this so-called Napoleon Complex? The idea of the Napoleon Complex is that it’s a height-related bias where shorter men might exhibit more aggressive behavior than taller men. Might that behavior manifest itself in foul calls? Referees are employees of a real business. It just so happens that every decision they make is tracked and monitored, and we are interested in it.

BL: It’s irresistible to suppose that your next study is going to be whether short players really resent how tall some of the other players are.

PG: [Laughs] If I could only think of a way to quantify that.

BL: According to historians, Napoleon was 5-foot-6, which wasn’t particularly short for his time. And if I understand your study correctly, the average height of an NBA referee is upwards of six feet. So I can only assume you were inspired not by the shortness of referees, but by the height differential between them and the players?

PG: Yes, and that’s another element that we looked at. Actually we looked at two elements. We looked at, one, does absolute height — height differentials between referees — seem to impact their foul calling? And then the other question was, does this impact, if there is one, does it change based on the height of the players? In other words, would a shorter referee call even more fouls against taller players, and we didn’t find any effect there.

BL: I understand that the next step in your research might be to study technical fouls. How might that research give more clarity to the question of whether the Napoleon Complex is at play in the NBA?

PG: When it comes to technical fouls, I can’t see a clear scenario in which a few inches would make a difference in calling a technical foul. So in that sense I think it would be a bit cleaner of a result.

The problem is there are many fewer technical fouls called in a given game or a given season. So we have four seasons of data that we analyzed — which was over 4,000 games — but the problem is you need a lot more data so we’re going to let a few more years pass, probably, before we look at that.

BL: You also have a study, as I understand it, on the phenomenon of make-up calls — calls that seem to negate an earlier mistake by a ref. That research will soon be published in the journal of Economic Inquiry, and it apparently yielded even clearer results. Could you quickly fill me in on the economics of make-up calls?

PG: That was what originally inspired me to become a sports economist, that idea. What I found is when an offensive foul occurs  in one possession then offensive fouls, traveling and three-second violations all become more likely to be called on the other team — anywhere from 16 to 66 percent more likely on the other team. So it seems to suggest referees are at least changing their scrutiny of the other team and scrutinizing them a little bit more when they might have done something that’s questionable on the previous possession.