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Swallowing the whistle: Why we choose to do nothing when the stakes are high

One of the most pivotal moments in the lead-up to this year’s NCAA basketball tournament came in the closing seconds of a Big East conference game, when St. John’s player Justin Brownlee stepped out of bounds while the clock was still ticking. It was a clear violation of the rules. The referee should have called it. It would have given the opposing team one last shot at the win.

Of course, there was no call. The referee “swallowed his whistle,” as sports fans say.

Why? Sometimes it’s hard to believe that a ref can blow such a seemingly easy call. For Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim, this speaks to the peculiar duality of sports — where by-the-book officiating is in the all-too-human hands of the officials themselves.

“You have a pursuit that, by its very nature, by its very definition, is so physical and primal,” Werthheim said. “It’s sort of like, do you apply analytics to jazz?”

As it turns out, the referee in the St. John’s game was not alone. Wertheim and his co-author pored through thousands of NBA statistics and found that referees called some fouls in the final moments of close games a whopping 50 percent less.

Need to Know sat down with Wertheim to discuss this and other surprising statistics from his new book “Scorecasting,” about how morality, psychology and economics play out on the sporting field, in our offices and at home.

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