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Steve LEVITT: The 2021-2022 N.B.A. season opened last week and to mark that occasion, I’m interviewing one of the sport’s most respected referees. My guest today Marc Davis, has over 20 years experience as an N.B.A. referee. And he’s really good at it, too. The N.B.A. uses quality metrics to decide which of its more than 70 referees are chosen to referee the N.B.A. finals. Marc Davis was one of only 10 who made the cut this year, and it was the tenth season that he’s earned that honor.

Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.

LEVITT: I met Marc four years ago and I was so impressed by him. We’ve only crossed paths a few times, but he’s always had interesting things to say on all sorts of topics and he listens with a curiosity and intensity that’s rare. I’ve got a lot of questions to ask him about refereeing, but my hope is that we’ll get into deeper issues of race and society as well. The last time I talked with Marc happened to be a few days after the George Floyd video had been released — he had a lot of insights then and I’m eager to hear what he’s thinking these days on the topic.  

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Steve LEVITT: So, I’m guessing that as a kid growing up, you thought you’d be playing professional basketball one day. Is that right? 

Marc DAVIS: Yes. Although in my wildest dreams, I never imagined I’d still be doing it at 53. 

LEVITT: Do you remember the moment when you realized that playing professional basketball in the N.B.A. wasn’t in your future? 

DAVIS: Yes. In my sophomore year at the Naval Academy, one of the assistant coaches, Dave Layton, he mentioned to me, “Have you ever thought about refereeing?” And I looked at him like he was nuts.  And I never thought about it again until about seven or eight years later, at which point I was no longer playing. A friend of mine, Peter Thompson, and I were coaching the boy’s freshman basketball team at Hale’s Franciscan in Chicago. I was a permanent substitute for a woman. I was teaching a little algebra and a little geometry there. She came back off maternity leave and I needed a job. And Pete Thompson gave me his 4X shirt and his pea whistle and the athletic director at the time told me I could referee some games during the day because the Chicago Public Schools play their grammar school games during the day. 

LEVITT: Wait — you started with grammar school?

DAVIS: Grammar school. 

LEVITT: O.K. You started from the very bottom. 

DAVIS: From the very bottom. It’s the only place to start. It’s the only place a ball will bounce up, is at the bottom. So, the moment I refereed my first half — at halftime, just so happened one of my little league baseball coaches — this is all happenstance — happened to be the coach of one of the teams I was refereeing. He brought me my check at halftime and he gave me a whistle and he said, “Real referees don’t use whistles with peas in the. Try this whistle.” And he gave me a Fox 40 whistle. And then after it he asked me, “How did I enjoy it?” And the pay structure was so much better for that 35 minutes than what I was getting teaching five classes and lunch room duty that I said, “I love it.” He said, “Come to my house on Saturday morning and I’ll show you what to do because clearly you’ve never done this before.” I said, “I have not.”

LEVITT: How much did you get paid for that first grammar school game? 

DAVIS: $35 for 45 minutes.

LEVITT: That’s not bad. Almost a dollar a minute. 

DAVIS: Almost a dollar a minute. I was instantly bit by it. I was so challenged, from the first time I did it, it was like a light sparked and I knew this is what I wanted to do. 

LEVITT: Did you hand out any technicals in that first game?

DAVIS: In that first game I did not because, as you know, confused people generally do what? Nothing. I was so confused that I didn’t do much of anything other than call a travel or a call a foul, but I enjoyed it. I really did. I had so much fun the first time. 

LEVITT: So, what was the road like from your first grammar school game to the N.B.A.? I assume that’s a long, hard road. 

DAVIS: That was a hard road but I intuitively knew that I had a short window of time to cram a lot of experience in. Just, anecdotally, I just recognized that this was a skillset and a trade that is going to involve a lot of time and a lot of repetition. And I knew that I wanted to do it quickly because as it so happens that first year was when the N.B.A. referees were locked out — there was a work stoppage. And so, I was watching E.S.P.N. and I was seeing all these young referees on T.V. and I knew a little bit about the program. I’d probably been refereeing about six months. I had a sense that maybe it might be somewhere down the road — I’d like to think about trying to do it. And I remember there might’ve been a skirmish in a game and they said “21-year-old referee X,” and 21 — I think I was 27 at the time, or 26. I said, “I’m too far behind. There’s no way I’m going to be able to do this if 21-year-olds are already doing it.” But, in the ‘can-do’ spirit, I then sat down and I wrote a letter to David Stern

LEVITT: David Stern, then commissioner of the N.B.A? 

DAVIS: Yeah, the commissioner of N.B.A., David Stern. Wrote him a letter. I wrote Matt Winick, who was the chief scheduler at the time, Darell Garretson, who was the head of officiating for the N.B.A. then — as well as Dr. Wade, who was the head of the N.B.A.’s training program in charge of the officials for the C.B.A. 

LEVITT: Wait, you were — you’re six months into it. So, you’re refereeing high school games now, or what are you refereeing? 

DAVIS: I’ve refereed all summer. I’ve refereed some high school games. Now I’m doing, like, some freshmen, maybe some sophomore games. 

LEVITT: Does David Stern care about you at all? I mean, doesn’t that seem crazy? You’re writing to David Stern when you are literally a nobody in this world.

DAVIS: Oh, yeah — Steve, not only did I write him, I called him. I got the number and I called him. 

LEVITT: Did he pick up?

DAVIS: No. No, he didn’t pick up. 

LEVITT: Well, what were you going to say if he did pick up?

DAVIS: The only person who — the only person who picked up was Matt Winick, and he said, “Are you the gentleman who sent the faxes to everybody all the letters?” I said, “Yes, sir.” And he said, “If you’re good enough, we’ll find you.” And he hung up the phone on me.

LEVITT: Did that discourage you? 

DAVIS: No, because then I had marching orders. “Get good enough.” That’s how sick I was about it. I was totally obsessed with it from every perspective. And the good thing about Chicago and basketball is from the time I started refereeing, like maybe two or three weeks in, until the day I got hired in the N.B.A., which was January 2, maybe of 1999. 

LEVITT: So, how many years later is that? 

DAVIS: This was maybe December of 96, 95. 

LEVITT: So, three to four years. 

DAVIS: There were never more than one day where I didn’t referee.

LEVITT: You’re saying for like over the next thousand days, you refereed — 

DAVIS: Maybe there were seven days that I didn’t referee. There was so much competitive basketball here. Basketball officiating is very organic, and tribal in that everybody wants to help you. It’s really crazy. People want to help and mentor people. It’s almost like a badge of honor to have people you’re helping. 

LEVITT: So, other referees want to help you become better?

DAVIS: Help one, help other referees. It’s just the way officiating is. The culture of officiating is to gather as much information and then try to process it by being able to teach it. It really makes a lot of sense. You don’t really know something until you can present it and you can really teach it. 

LEVITT: Let me go back in time, because I’m trying to understand what’s making you tick. So, how did you end up at the Naval Academy? And did you serve in the Navy afterwards? 

DAVIS: I did not. Going into my senior year I transferred to Howard University and I played basketball for two N.B.A. players there, Coach Beard and Jerry Eaves. Played for them, came home, and then now we’re at Hales, and I’m teaching at Hales trying to figure out a job and starting a janitorial service and coaching basketball, teaching on the side, doing a lot of things. I even got an offer to be a coach — to be a grad assistant at Eastern Illinois after my first year. And I said, “No.” I told my dad, “I really want to do this refereeing thing. I want to be in the N.B.A. I want to be a professional referee.” He said, “Well, why don’t you take this job because you’re only doing eighth grade games and I’m sure they have eighth graders down at Eastern Illinois that you can referee as well.  You’re not going to be refereeing many Bulls games or N.B.A. games next year.” I was like, “No, but I need to focus on it.” So, I got real intense about it real quickly. When I finally got hired in the N.B.A. in ’99, I’d only been refereeing for four years, totally. From the day of this first story until my first N.B.A. game. 

LEVITT: Is that unusual or is that typical? 

DAVIS: No, that is profoundly unusual. Most of my colleagues, — the two gentlemen who got hired with me, probably had 10 to 15 years of experience before we got hired. Generally speaking, it takes an official four to six years to make it through our development program to get onto the floor, and generally speaking, prior to them getting even involved in the development program, they usually have somewhere between five to 10, as many as 12 years of experience before they even begin. So, it was definitely — I was definitely a one-off and I don’t see that happening much as organized and structured and as layered as it is now.

LEVITT: So, let’s talk about the economics of refereeing. So, you said at the time, at least grammar-school referees were making $35 a game. I think a high school referee’s probably getting paid 50 or $75 a game right now. Top college referees are making maybe 60K and I think the starting salaries for N.B.A. referees are up around $300,000 right now. To an economist that makes me think there is a huge pyramid of people who are all gunning for the N.B.A. And the competition must be unbelievably fierce to get the two or three jobs that are up for grabs every year. Do you know anything about what the numbers are of how many people are trying to get the N.B.A. to be referees and how many make it? 

DAVIS: At some level, everyone who’s refereeing, regardless in the Final Four or just beginning, it has crossed their mind and they’re thinking about it. But I do not know the actual numbers in terms of officials around the country. I’ve refereed and done clinics all over the world, in China and Greece and in Europe. So, I would say there’s gotta be an excess over 250,000 officials — basketball officials, to various leagues. 

LEVITT: And I’m guessing, given that it’s a pretty good job that’s well paid and people enjoy, the turnover’s not high — I wouldn’t be surprised if more than two or three people get hired each year?

DAVIS: Yeah, it’s a zero-sum game. The amount of resources and input into the training of an official to get them up to speed and prepared to perform on an N.B.A. floor is a pretty high cost. And we’re pretty — contrary to popular opinion — pretty effective, all of us. I think the difference between the highest-rated official and the lowest-rated official, if you take it on effectiveness and accuracy — is plus or minus 3 percent, 4 percent, which is really about a call or two a game. So, we have had some officials that — they’ve lost their job based on ability or competence. But for the most part, the amount of work that we put in on a nightly basis, it’s hard to catch up. 

LEVITT: It’s just good to look at the numbers and think about how competitive it is. Let’s take your 250,000 referees worldwide. And obviously, not every one of them is trying to be in the N.B.A., but let’s just say, 100,000 people who are out there and would be willing to give it a shot, would like to try the N.B.A. And we’re talking about three people. So, one out of every 33,000 people who’s looking for that job is getting it each year — you are really sitting at the pinnacle of an extremely competitive world. So, it’s still not exactly clear to me — you were refereeing eighth graders, but then, somehow, in a matter of just two or three more years, you’re in the N.B.A. What happened in between? 

DAVIS: O.K., so, right off the bat in Chicago — in the public school system and the Metropolitan Official Association, the official association here in Chicago, there were three officials who are already working in the C.B.A., which at the time was the N.B.A.’s development league for both players and officials. So, right from the beginning, just like anything else, I got taught the correct way. And, so, I think that probably the greatest gift was having Keith McClellan and Lionel Yates and James Capers and Terry Murphy, officials who are already in the C.B.A. who told me right off the bat, “This is what you do. This is where you stand. This is how you do it.” I got really effective teaching and coaching right away. And I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about what it was. I wanted to be successful. I viewed them as successful. So, I listened intently at everything they said. And as a result, I never really had to unlearn a lot of habits and bad habits and different things that are different to the pro game then are to the high school game, to the college game. I never had to participate in that exercise. So, I was blessed right off the bat. It’d be like golf and right when you decide, “Man, I really want it,” you go to a driving range, you go to a putt putt and and then all of a sudden Tiger Woods says, “Hey, let me take you under my wing. Let me show you.” You’re just learning from the best right off the bat. If I had to be honest, that was probably one of my greatest gifts. In Chicago, there was so much competitive basketball right then. So, I got a chance to watch a lot of really good, intense basketball. Once I started to do it, I got a chance to referee a lot of good players in the Chicago Public League, too. I probably refereed more N.B.A. players in the Chicago Public League than my counterparts who had refereed college players. As anything, just a lot of luck — a lot of hard work and a lot of luck. And I think the harder you work, the luckier you get. So, I’d like to say that it was all about me, but I think a lot of it had to do with just being in the right place at the right time.

LEVITT: When they want to hire an N.B.A. referee, are they solely concerned about accuracy of calls or are they worried about what you look like and your personality and stuff like that as well? 

DAVIS: It’s a combination, it’s a process. It used to be more of a beauty contest and them observing you and saying, “He’s effective. The players are responding to it. We think these calls are correct.” And now, that they’ve really quantified it, it is so difficult for young officials to get hired. They evaluate each play. Every decision is reviewed. So, that is a large part of it — the accuracy. You have to be accurate, you have to principally know the rules as well. And, seeing as the rule book is written by Ivy League-educated lawyers, it’s organic, just like any other law. And, so, you have to remember the changes. That’s one of the challenges in my 24th year is there’s been three different ways to adjudicate one play and I have to make sure when it happens in the game, that it’s the one from two years ago and not the one from 12 years ago. And we’re constantly evaluating and training on how to communicate and how to get along. That’s probably where the larger number of complaints or pushback come from is not necessarily accuracy, because if we really drive down into it, it’s a funny little thing. The teams don’t really want you to be accurate. They just want to win.  I find it funny when coaches will say, “Hey, we just want it fair.” And I just think to myself, “Mmm, why don’t you ask for what you really want? You don’t want it fair, you want to win.” And that’s the job security of being a referee. Everyone out there, from announcers to mascots, to P.A. addressers, to teams, to ball kids, to the owners — everybody has a team they want to win. They’re all connected to a team except the officials. And it is mind blowing for people to not understand that we don’t care who wins. It’s a concept that is impossible. My children are just now 19, 18, and 17. Just about three years ago, finally started trying to trick me like, “Well, when you were eight, who did you want to win?” Well, when I was eight, I was a Bulls fan, like you, but now my job is to be fair. I watch a lot of basketball games and other than St. Ignatius High School, I’m not ever rooting for anyone. And I really watch it from a different perspective and I enjoy them both. I love watching my sons and my daughter play when they’re playing, I love rooting for their teams. That’s a phenomenal experience. I probably only watch maybe a quarter of a game on a game I’m working, but I definitely watch a game every night on nights I’m not working. So, that’s a lot of games and I’m really watching it from the perspective of the play and the perspective of how it’s being officiated, which is a completely different — I wouldn’t recommend it. I don’t think we’d be on pace to be the world’s fastest growing sport if everybody was watching just the referees. 

You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt, and his conversation with N.B.A. referee Marc Davis. They’ll return after this short break. 

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LEVITT: Morgan, what do we have on tap today?

LEVEY: Hey, Steve. Jack H. writes, “Do you ever worry that people in your life who you don’t invite onto the show will take offense or think you don’t admire them?”

LEVITT: It turns out that the kind of people who might be offended by not being invited on my show, well, they don’t listen to the podcast. They probably don’t even know that I have a podcast. And, so, it has definitely not been a big problem. You might be surprised that very few of my friends, maybe zero, have asked to come on the show. More often than not I have to beg my friends to come on the show and they really see it as a favor to me, as opposed to vice versa.

LEVEY: Don’t you think that people who know you best also know that “mostly” part is a little tongue in cheek.

LEVITT: I think, the “mostly” is so weird that no one knows what to think about it, because it is weird and it’s intentionally weird because, I feel like it captures the weirdness and the unpredictability of what I try to do in picking my guests in interviewing them. But certainly, the cost of having that word mostly in there is that it makes everybody uncomfortable. So, my friends are like, “What do you mean mostly? Why would I want to be a mostly person?” But even worse with strangers, right? I mean, you do most of the soliciting to get people to come on, Morgan. How many times have possible guests balked because they don’t know what that word mostly means?

LEVEY: I do get a lot of questions about the title. I, usually, say it’s tongue in cheek. But I do think, knowing you, it really works for the show’s title, because I think the people that you actually respect the most are the ones that you’re willing to argue with a bit on the show. So, I think the mostly is actually a term of endearment.

LEVITT: You know, you’re right about that, Morgan, because definitely the interviews that go the worst are often the ones where I’m not willing to fight so hard because I think, “Oh, no, this is going so badly. If I start beating up on them, it’s just going to get even worse.” It’s true. If I’m fighting with someone on the show, it’s a pretty good sign that I think the interview’s going well.

LEVEY: I think we just gave away the secret sauce to People I (Mostly) Admire. Well, thanks for listening, audience. If you have a question for us, please write in the email address is Steve and I read every email that’s sent and we look forward to reading yours.

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LEVITT: The thing that jumps out at me so far in this conversation is that Marc Davis definitely picked the right career. His passion at the beginning was remarkable. I had to laugh imagining him racing from one grammar school game to another. But what I found much more unusual is that 25 years later, he is still completely obsessed with refereeing. How many people do you know who 25 years into a job are as excited about it as the day they started? Marc Davis is the poster child for finding a career you love and making a career out of it. I’ve got a few more refereeing questions to ask, but mostly I’m hoping to turn the conversation towards some broader societal issues. 

LEVITT: Can you describe a typical game day for you from the time you wake up until the time you go to bed? 

DAVIS: Probably every five games I work back-to-back. So, normally, I’m waking up in a hotel in a different city. Start doing my physical routine in the morning of getting myself together. Some form of exercise, probably a long walk, as well as start to coordinate what our plan is going to be for how we’re going to attack the game that evening. In the Covid era, it would involve a Zoom call for about an hour and 15 minutes. 

LEVITT: Wait. So, I’m confused. You’ve been doing this for 24 years. How complicated can it be, one game to the next? Isn’t every game the same? 

DAVIS: Uh, no. Every game is not the same. The difference is that I probably watch my colleagues a little bit from their previous games, and there’re things that I’ve noticed positionally that we need to adjust to tonight. Things that we’re not reading off of each other’s coverage correctly. I want to discuss a mistake or two that I’ve made and the last couple of games, because that happens every night, because once you delve into a mistake, it’ll really take you down a road of how do we not make that mistake again? What if “A” happened? What if “X happened? What could we have done here? 

LEVITT: So, let me tell you what’s interesting about this because you and your colleagues have been at this a long time, but it’s like you’re doing professional development every day of the season. And I contrast that a little bit, say with economists, like when I go to teach my class, one could imagine, I would get together with other faculty members and we would talk about things to do or not do in the classroom, but I don’t do that. I just got my notes. I look through them. I go in there, I teach — whatever happens, happens. It’s interesting that you’re describing a level of professionalism that is very foreign to me — pilots kind of have that attitude, but people who’ve been at stuff for a long time, I’m not used to them focusing on the minutiae in such a detailed way. 

DAVIS: Yeah, we have a theory, that’s specific to our staff: Aim small, miss small. That we try to leave no stone unturned. We try to work on our habits and our fundamentals daily. Because our game is so evolving and our game is so subjective and at the end of the day, although we’re striving for perfection, we’re really just trying to be excellent. Because trying to be perfect, we’ll definitely mess it up every time and you will not be excellent, but we’re really there to be fair. So, there has to be a consistency of what we talk about and what we think. We get constant feedback from the management staff about was this play correct? Was it not correct? Why was it correct? There’s a lot to it and we’re complete professionals that are trying our very best every night to be better than the game, and it’s just not possible, so it keeps you constantly challenged. It would be like every one of your classes and your lectures, you having all of your colleagues sitting in the back row. And then afterwards going through what you said. It’s almost defending your thesis every night and you want to not be defensive, but you should have a reason for why you did what you did. And when you’re open to that, then sometimes you realize that reason was incorrect and you adjust to it to the next time. And isn’t that how you gain experientially? That’s how you learn how to officiate. I generally now recognize my mistakes and I’m not tied to them as much as I was when I first started. Cause I wanted to be perfect so much. Now, if I make a mistake, I recognize it as such and I go to move on to the next one. And I’m apt to say, “This is a mistake and why it is.” Most of the time when I make a mistake, most people don’t even notice it. And I’m tearing myself up inside about it and have to hurry up and get to the next play. Or a player will come to me. And I’ll say, “Whoa, before you even get started, I’m certain that you’re going to say this, and just before we get started that was a mistake.” 

LEVITT: So, I’m sure the players aren’t that used to hearing the referee saying I made a mistake. 

DAVIS: Oh, yeah. They are. It’s not as confrontational as it appears on TV. There is some complaining and there is some gamesmanship, but it is not as confrontational as it appears. You just have profoundly type-A personalities who want to win and they’re looking for every single advantage that is possible, and you’re out there responsible for being fair and just like any good judge, sometimes you have to say, “No,” because that’s not fair. And at the end of the day, that’s what you’re trying to do. You’re not trying to make one friend, you’re trying to be respected by 414 other players. That’s the goal. I had an official, Billy Oakes, tell me one time, “Allow them to teach you how to referee.” Don’t think that you know it all. If you keep getting a consistent complaint from someone, you might want to look at that and see — what do the coaches think about these plays? They watch all the games, they see it there. Are you consistently judging plays the way they’ve seen them judged, and what are their reactions? I had a great player tell me one time — he is a coach — it was actually Isaiah Thomas. I called a travel on — who was it on? I can’t remember who it was on. And he said to me, “Marc, how much do you work on your travel call this summer?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, well he worked on that move all summer long and you called a travel. You need to make sure when you call it that it’s really a travel.” 

LEVITT: You talked about how the N.B.A. has quantified the accuracy. So, can you tell me a little bit about what you’re measured on? 

DAVIS: Yes. Well, the plays are divided into four categories: incorrect calls; correct calls; no calls that are judged correctly; and no calls that are judged incorrectly. So, initially you might think that we’re only judged when we blow our whistle — are we right, or are we wrong? But basketball — there’s so many decisions that need to be made and no calls need to be quantified as well. 

LEVITT: And who’s doing that judging? There’s a team of people employed by the N.B.A.?

DAVIS: There’s a team of evaluators. Yes. 

LEVITT: And they’re, literally, looking at every play of every game? And putting a label on every single play? 

DAVIS: Every single play of every single game for every season is judged based on those four categories. Some of them cannot be verified with the human eye — it’s correct once we put it in triple X, super slow motion, but was not verifiable by the naked eye.

LEVITT: And, so, then you get a score for every game? They give you some number that says how good you were game by game, or what kind of feedback do you get? 

DAVIS: Generally speaking, we have a developmental team of advisers and they quantify all of this. And there is a score and there is a website in which we can go and see how we were judged for that game. We’ve had this system about eight years — I have never one time gone on that system. I look and I review all of my own plays. But in terms of nightly looking at every single play — did they think it was right? Did they think it was wrong? I don’t find that to be a useful exercise. If a trend develops — like they might tell me we have three positions on the floor, lead trail, and slot. “Marc, in the slot, we’ve noticed you’ve had a sequence of incorrect decisions on no calls on curl plays to the basket. We’ve looked at this and we think you need to really focus on taking a step down to catch to the point of contact on the elbow. You missed four of those in the last week.” Then, I’ll go and look at that. But generally speaking, by doing my own, I generally know before they call me about it. I generally already am aware of it.

LEVITT: And over the course of a season, do they tell you what your numbers look like? 

DAVIS: If I were to ask, they would tell me. I know other officials have asked. One thing that we do know from the stats, we have primary responsibilities on the floor and then secondary responsibility on the floor and that’s fluid because, based on where the ball is, we change position, we move, we rotate to different places. And then what was your secondary responsibility, the ball comes in, and now it’s your primary responsibility. Our most accurate official, staff-wide, in their primary, when they call a foul or make a decision in their secondary, meaning they’re calling in front of another official, our most accurate official is nowhere near as accurate in his secondary — as our least accurate official would be in her primary. One of the fundamental tenets of refereeing is you referee the defender, you stay in your primary, you call obvious plays, and you trust your partner. And that’s one of the things that the analytics has really done a marvelous job of, is pulling out little nuggets like that, that I think will push our percentages even higher than they are now. And now they go somewhere between 93 to 95 percent. I would venture to guess if we looked at those stats and we start seeing publicity about it two, three years from now, that number will be going up to 95 to 97. ‘Cause it makes you more disciplined. And if you go back, aim small, miss small — if you get somebody who’s really well-trained and you allow them to focus on a smaller area, then they’re going to be more accurate in that area as opposed to spraying and looking at a much larger area. 

LEVITT: So, you could have two different rules about a game. One would be, I want to have every call accurate and the other would be I’d like the game to be fair. And, so, when I know I made a mistake, fairness would dictate that I should make another mistake. So, if you blow a call, do you follow that up with a make-up call? 

DAVIS: Two blown calls. That would be two blown calls. 

LEVITT: So, you’re saying you do not personally partake in makeup calls.

DAVIS: Nor do any of my colleagues. Query how that is ever fair to make a mistake on purpose?

LEVITT: Let’s define fairness as given the skill levels of the teams where they play that the outcome reflects that. So, if you know, you blew a call then to balance it out, you want to give one back. 

DAVIS: No. I wish I didn’t make that mistake. I’m not in the business of then making another mistake that goes to my professional reputation and I want to be accurate. I want to be trusted. My response to that is, “Yeah, I recognize that as a mistake, Steve, and I’m sorry about that, buddy. That’s awful.” Now, what we do have — and I’m being careful, just because I want to make sure that I’m articulating because no one has insinuated directly, indirectly, to me to make a make-up call. They tell me constantly, “Do your best. Get the ones you can, move on if you make a mistake.” There’ve been some ceiling stares. I’ve made some brutal errors that were at critical times of the game that kept me up for nights on end, because you don’t want to have that effect on the game, but I never have made that mistake on the other end to try to make up for it. 

LEVITT: That’s another difference between officiating and, say, teaching, or grading. Sometimes I’ll be tough on a particular student, maybe give them a lower grade, because I’m in a bad mood or something like that. And I file that away and I usually make it up to them later in the term. But the reason is — nobody’s actually watching me. There’s no scrutiny. Now, that’s not necessarily a good recipe for excellence, but it’s a good recipe for having fun and having an easy life and not having to worry every second about doing a good job. And I like that. 

DAVIS: Different missions, different goals. Ultimately, you’re trying to communicate and teach this student the overarching lesson that you’re trying to teach. You want them to get the concept of the class, the overarching part of it. We’re focused on getting the play right. Because then when everybody understands what’s right and wrong, then they can participate, and their beautiful athleticism and the hard-wrought, emotional competitiveness can come out when everybody knows where the line is. Although, that is a concept that people just for the life of them cannot understand.

LEVITT: So, I learned my first lesson about this in high school about makeup calls in high school. I was — believe it or not — my senior year I was the starting point guard on my varsity team, but I really wasn’t very good. So, I needed all the help I could get, and help finally came one day. Mid-season, my prayers were answered. It turned out that my uncle Bill was a high school referee and he got assigned to my game and I thought, “Oh, how fantastic. I’ve got my uncle on my side.” So, I was not very good at basketball, but the one thing I was willing to do and not bad at was taking a charge. And it was about two minutes into the game — and this is 30 years ago, but I still remember the name of the player. The guy’s name was Brent Cumber. He was a big guy. He was an all-metro football and basketball player. And he drives down the lane, and, using no common sense, I decided it would be a great idea to take a charge against him. So, I plant my feet. He leaps, he buries his knee into my neck, and we crash to the ground, qnd my uncle Bill blows the whistle. He points to me. “Blocking foul.” I’m like, what are you — a blocking foul? That makes no sense. But anyway, we get up, we play. It’s about three minutes later, same situation. Brent Cumber comes down the lane again. I plant. This time he hits me so hard that I actually slide backwards all the way and I crash into the wall of the gymnasium. My uncle Bill blows a whistle. Blocking foul. Like you, he did not believe in make-up calls. It’s the only time I’ve ever used the F-word towards the referee. And probably if it hadn’t been my uncle, he would have given me a technical, but he did not give me a technical, but I still did not forgive him for at least two or three years.

DAVIS: Uh, seems like 30.

LEVITT: You’re right. I’ve never totally forgiven him.

LEVITT: So, you were a spokesman for the N.B.A. referees after Jacob Blake was shot by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The players and referees boycotted playoff games — I think that was maybe in August of 2020? Can you tell me about that? 

DAVIS: Yeah. I’m the leader of our group, and represented us in our negotiations. I just felt like we — as a multi-generational, as well as multi-racial, gender-based, L.G.B.Q.T. community. I just think our group has representation from all the different groups that when we have issues like this and we’re such a close group that we have to delve into them. And I knew that there had to be a common place that we could be on. Black Lives Matter is not a knock against the police. I knew it was a topic that we could deal with. And that’s when we came up with, it’s not right versus left, it’s right versus wrong, and racism is wrong. Can we all agree on that? Yes. So, let’s just keep it to just that.

And let’s let that be our platform — that racism is wrong and it should not be tolerated. And we also agreed that our players were hurting and that Black America was hurting, and convinced them that we should get up, march down to the players who were having a meeting at the same time and get in front of them and stand united. We have a large proponent of white men, and I knew if I could get these white men and women and Black older men and the younger men, if we could get in the middle of that group and tell them that we loved them, we supported them, that we build lives on their talents and we all agreed that racism was wrong and that Black Lives Matter, and we’re here to support you, whatever we can offer to you, contextually or experientially at different times, grab one of us. You got a question? We’re here for you.

LEVITT: And what happened? What did the players do? 

DAVIS: There was not an immediate response. Just a thank you. And just looks of, “Thank you,” predominantly to our leadership team, and then we marched out and left. But over the next couple of weeks, as you would make your way around campus, I would see players and they would pull official to the side and ask them questions. And just think about it generationally, even our most experienced players — 35, 36. We have officials 55, 60-years-old. We had a lot of conversations that just were organic. A lot of conversations where we said, “Look, here’s your platform. The world’s attention is on us. Every time you have a game, there’s going to be a microphone in your face. Say something about issues that you feel strongly about in your community.” 

LEVITT: Do you talk to your kids about race? 

DAVIS: Incessantly. We talk about it every day. They’re exhausted by it. I know they are, but it’s so important. And my wife is white. I’m Black. And we had a lot of conversations about it before we got married and we had conversations with my parents and her parents And this is the way I presented it to them. I said, “Here’s the thing. Our children, we’re going to allow them to identify however they identify themselves as. Whatever they want the world to see them as, whatever they want to project. We have to give them the freedom and the flexibility, the confidence, and the intelligence to present whoever they’re going to be to the world, but they must have defense. And they must understand how the world may perceive them. And they must be able to pick up on societal cues and pick up on cues to help navigate themselves so that their intelligence, their diligence, their kindness, their goodness can get out because you have to be able to articulate.

You have to be able to figure out nuances and understanding. That’s just what you must be able to do in this country as a person of color. And my mother-in-law, she didn’t get it at first. The first time she ever really picked up, she was taking my oldest, he was in the bassinet. And somebody came up to her and said, “Oh, that baby’s beautiful. Where’d you get them?” “Get them? My daughter’s — where’d you — where’d you get them?” She didn’t catch it. And then finally, like two days later, I was back in town and she was like, “They couldn’t put that was my grandchild.” I said, “No, they didn’t.” My point is my in-laws, who are Irish Catholic, never went to school with anybody Black, probably didn’t work with many people Black, never had any engagement. They have become the most engaged and the most involved in these kinds of conversations because it’s become real to them. And, so, we have to really get into these tough conversations, particularly in intimate relationships, like with my colleagues, like with people I went to school with. We don’t shy from those conversations. My oldest son’s college essay — he wrote independently, this was his idea. He wrote it was on white versus Black Thanksgiving and his life of two Thanksgivings and how he loved them both, but how they were so different. White Thanksgiving’s at two o’clock and Black Thanksgiving’s at six, but they don’t eat until eight. And white Thanksgiving’s with my six nuclear — two uncles and my cousins, and Black Thanksgiving’s with aunts that kiss me and know everything about me and I don’t even know who they are. And my daughter’s was about her hair and how people perceived her with her hair and from both sides of race. And my youngest, who’s working on his now — I just read his first draft — was about his perception of how people wanted to make him be in one and how he refused to, and this is who he is, and this is — and how he grew to be able to articulate who he is and how he wants to be perceived. And he perceives himself as a Black man. 

LEVITT: I’ve watched some video of you on the court and it seems like you banter a lot with the players and coaches and that you’re having a lot of fun. 

DAVIS: Sometimes — because it’s a relationship. It’s not Mr. Referee. It’s not, we think all referees are awful, all referees are bad. They think referee Marc Davis is not good. They think Steven is much better. They think Monty McCutchen is great. They think James Capers is nice, but he doesn’t want to be spoken to. It’s a relationship. So, when a funny moment comes about, you have to chuckle and they chuckle, too. It’s a game and it’s very important. And a lot of people make their livelihood with it. But if something funny happens, you got to smile. They’ve got to know that you care. And, so, you have to have that connection with people. Everybody wants to be heard. As I have doing this longer and longer, I think it’s more important that they understand — that they know that you understand the complaint, they know that you understand what they’re saying. They know that you understand what they’re feeling. They know that as opposed to the actual answer to the question that they’re asking you, if in fact it is a question.

LEVITT: And do you bring that same perspective to parenting or do you parent like you referee? 

DAVIS: I don’t know that there’s a change when I think about it. My father was never an official, but I probably learned more about officiating and clearly everything I know about parenting from him. My father was a Chicago policeman. He worked in the streets, he worked in the second district. So, he worked in the Robert Taylor Projects, and then out in Gresham for a while. And I have never to this day, met anyone who did not like my father, not one person ever. Growing up, we spent a lot of time in his district, wherever he was. I spent a lot of time in the police station. Until I was about 11, I thought damn near everybody I saw was a policeman because he would say, “Daddy works with him.” And everyone always wants to say hi to my dad. And he said, “Hey, how you doing, man? You fine? How’s everything going since you’ve been back?” And I’d say, “Who is that?” “Oh, Daddy works with him.” The best thing he taught me about refereeing was something that had nothing to do with refereeing, really, but as everything to do with it, he said, “As long as you have the final say, give up the last word.” And that has been profound into my home life, marriage, children. 

LEVITT: Wait, you have the final say in your home life? 

DAVIS: Is this the part — we can edit this, right? No, I don’t. That’s the only relationship in which I do not have the final say.  But with my children, I have the final say. I have the final say on whether or not they can stay out 30 minutes later or whether they can go to this or whether they can do that. So, if I get a little mumble grumble, while they’re doing what I’ve asked them to do, I don’t really pay attention to that. My dad said to me, years ago — he would watch me referee and he — because I was a bit of a fireball. He said, “You know that these people don’t even know you, they’re screaming at your shirt. And your shirt can’t respond. So, unless they’re really screaming at you, just let it go.” If I ask a player, “Hey buddy, can you please tuck your shirt in?” And they all, “What the hell?” And as long as they’re tucking their shirt and that’s fine with me, if they asked me why, I tell them, I said, “Because you know, the owners have a lucrative deal with Nike and they want the shirts to be tucked in. You know, that’s why. Don’t you see my shirts tucked in?” It’s just what we have to do. “Oh, that’s stupid.” As long as they’re tucking their shirt in, that’s fine.

LEVITT: I love the advice Marc’s dad gave him, and I’ll tell you why: One of the subtle ways that economists differ from other people I’ve noticed is that we tend to be heavily focused on outcomes and care very little about process. Thinking like an economist doesn’t always pay off, but I suspect this is one situation where it can be helpful. If you can free yourself from caring about the particular path by which an outcome is reached, then that frees you up to follow whatever path leads to the outcome you want. Give it a try. The next time you notice that your more focused on the process than the outcome, take a deep breath, say to yourself, “This probably won’t work, but Levitt says, ‘Forget about the process, all that matters is the outcome.’” And then let me know how it turns out — good or bad. Thanks for listening and good luck. 

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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. This show is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Stephen Dubner. Theme music composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at, that’s Thanks for listening.

DAVIS: He went after me like he was going to kill me. They were tackling him telling me that this was the such and such grown-up league, and he would rip my head off and defecate down my neck if I ever bothered him again. I’m positive I gave him a technical foul. 

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