Not Swallowing the Whistle


Last week we settled a case. It was a good settlement. But we groused about it a bit, because we thought the judge should have granted us summary judgment on preemption grounds. The denial of summary judgment was truly "summary." There was no written opinion at all, and the judge's few statements at the hearing hardly qualified as any sort of legal analysis. What was going on?

Then we took a look at a recent book, Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports are Played and Games are Won, by Moskowitz and Wertheim. The book, in a manner reminiscent of Moneyball or Freakonomics, uses data to unearth some surprising truths, debunk a lot of conventional wisdom, and raise interesting questions. For example, there is no valid reason to believe that a player with a "hot-hand" will continue to score at will. Or, you probably know that home teams enjoy an advantage, but do you know when and why? Or -- and this is the topic of today's intellectual frolic and detour -- when and why do sports referees "swallow the whistle?"

Sports have rules and somebody's got to enforce them: umpires in baseball, referees in football, etc. When hockey games are in their final minutes or in overtime, referees don't call as many penalties. One of the all-time great examples in football is when the Giants upset the then-unbeaten Patriots in the Super Bowl. In the closing minutes of the game, David Tyree caught a pass against his helmet that some call the single greatest play in a championship game. But what some people forget is that Eli Manning threw that pass only after escaping the clutches of a Patriots lineman. In fact, Manning was in those clutches so long that, under the rules, he could (and people in Boston will howl that he should) have been called "in the grasp" and the play would have ended. So would the Giants' chances. History would have changed. But the referee didn't blow his whistle. He let the players decide the game. Similarly, Moskowitz and Wertheim analyze statistics from baseball, comparing umpire balls-and-strikes calls against a machine. It turns out that umpires are right way more than they are wrong, but their error rate goes way, way up in failing to call ball four or strike three. That is, the rules enforcers are seemingly reluctant to be outcome-determinative.

We wondered whether something like that happens in the law. Maybe our judge thought there ought to be some sort of settlement, even if the plaintiffs' case had certain legal and factual weaknesses. Granting us summary judgment would have knocked that out. Not granting summary judgment keeps the case alive and leaves open the possibility that the parties will reach agreement. In fact, we did. Maybe the judge thinks that rough justice was done. Or maybe the judge is just happy to have the case off the docket. (And we make no bones about our belief that it is pernicious and counterproductive for judges to shape their rulings to aid docket management rather than to follow the law. It's wrong and ultimately counterproductive.) Maybe judges sometimes swallow the whistle.

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