The Perils of Confirmation Bias

Vishnu Parasuraman (aka 2003alumgocanes) Follow on Twitter and Facebook

A school today was found guilty of violating NCAA rules with respect to providing impermissible benefits to over 75 student athletes, including 63 football players.  The football program at this school is high profile.  No, I am not talking about the University of Miami.  I am talking about the Boise State Broncos.  If you missed the media outrage, pitchforks and calls for the death penalty, it might be because that never occurred.  This lack of outrage exists despite the fact that the NCAA “concluded that a competitive advantage was gained in most instances”.  The NCAA also found that Boise State “failed to monitor its program to deter, find and report instances of NCAA violations to the NCAA”. In short, Boise State was complicit (not a booster, but the school itself) in violations and did not report these violations, which led to them gaining an advantage.

The penalties meted out were not harsh, with a reduction of 3 scholarships a year for the next 3 years, as well as some recruiting limitations on minor sports and a postseason ban for 1 year for the women’s tennis team.  Most of these penalties were self imposed.  Boise State mostly agreed with the findings of the report, acknowledging their guilt.  And yet, rather than outrage, people are rushing to the school’s defense.  ESPN’s Andrea Adelson argues that, “The coaches violated rules in helping arrange for lodging before the semester started. Discounted housing and food is a no-no. But there was a misinterpretation of what coaches could and could not do. Boise State has educated its coaches and has corrected its mistakes.” as a defense for Boise State, complaining about the penalties.  Coaches go through rigorous compliance training.  Claiming ignorance of the rules is not only not a defense, but in fact is an admission of an inadequate compliance department.

But Adelson is not the only person rushing to Boise State’s defense.  CBS Sports’ Gregg Doyel thinks that the NCAA’s “slap on the wrist” is too harsh, making the case that the NCAA should have admonished Boise State for the violations and then not punished the school.  Such compassion.

I actually agree with Doyel here.  I can make the argument that the self imposed sanctions by Boise State were more than sufficient.  You can make that argument as well.  You know who can’t?  Gregg Doyel.  Because he just finished arguing that Miami “obviously” deserved the death penalty for 72 players involved in a scandal, allegedly.  If you jump on 1 program without bothering to wait for the NCAA findings based on a number of 72 players, then you forfeit the right to show compassion in another instance when a school is found guilty of involving 75 athletes in violations.

But I am not pointing the finger at Boise State.  In fact, I am glad they didn’t get hammered here.  The NCAA classified their violations as “major” and argued that these violations provided a competitive advantage, but I don’t really see the violations that way.  The slap on the wrist is fine.  What I am trying to understand is why the media is either silent or supportive in this instance where the NCAA found violations while they were tripping over themselves to call for the death penalty for Miami when allegations were made.  It must be the nature of the allegations, right?  About that…

Oops, we jumped the gun but don’t believe in retractions

We still know very little about what the NCAA can prove about the Miami violations.  We know the Yahoo! story had holes.  But some of the worst allegations don’t pass the common sense test:

  • Charles Robinson, the Yahoo! reporter, admits that he doesn’t know if the abortion claim is even true, but says that doesn’t matter because the story was included to show that Shapiro lacked boundaries.  That is ridiculous, and given that we now this claim is unsubstantiated and why it was in the story, can we stop pretending like it even involves the school or a violation?
  • The DeQuan Jones story has debunked by his mother in the Miami Herald, again by Dave Hyde of the Sun Suntinel, and finally by anyone who can read a calendar.

And yet, even when violations are found, they don’t line up with the accusations, or even come close to it.

For some background on how the NCAA operates with current players, it is actually simple.  They sit down with the player and force them to tell the truth.  If the players refuse to talk, they get suspended indefinitely.  If they are caught in a lie, they lose their eligibility.  The NCAA is so stringent in their enforcement of these rules that they ruled former Oklahoma State WR Dez Bryant ineligible when he was untruthful about a non-violation.  So, with the proverbial gun to the current Miami player’s heads, they were forced to be completely honest and pray for leniency from the NCAA (there are mixed reports on Aldarius Johnson and why he is suspended indefinitely, but one rumor is that he was not entirely truthful with the NCAA).  Basically, we know as much factual information about the violations committed by these players as we will know about anything because they were forced to tell the truth.  What did the NCAA find in relation to the Yahoo! investigations?

Player Accused Violations Actual Wrongdoings
Armstrong, Ray Ray visit to a house, ride in a mercedes, cash, strip club visits, bowling, $2000 to $3000 for the strip club visit (split over 3 players) $788
Benjamin, Travis Bowling, cash pool tournaments, food and drinks, credit card statements totaling $2,114.18 (split among several players) $150
Dye, Dyron visit to a house, ride in a mercedes, cash, strip club visits, bowling, $2000 to $3000 for the strip club visit (split over 3 players) $738
Forston, Marcus Bowling, cash pool tournaments, food and drinks, VIP strip club access, food at Benihana,  credit card statements totaling $2,114.18 for bowling (split among several players) $400
Harris, Jacory Multiple nightclub access, food and drinks, $500 pool cash tournaments, tied to a $1,610.51 credit card statement (split among several players ) $140
McGee, Brandon Not accused less than $100
Nicolas, JoJo Bowling, cash pool tournaments, food and drinks, credit card statements totaling $2,114.18 for bowling (split among several players) less than $100
Ojomo, Adewale Food and drinks at Smith & Wollensky, food and drinks, nightclub access $240
Regis, Micanor Not accused less than $100
Robinson, Marcus Dinner at Benihana, VIP club access, Food and drinks Cleared of ANY wrongdoing
Spence, Sean Bowling,  food and drinks, VIP strip club access, food at Benihana,  credit card statements totaling $2,114.18 for bowling (split among several players) $275
Telemaque, Vaughn Food and drinks, cash pool tournaments, drinks and VIP club access less than $100
Vernon, Olivier Hosted in a suite at a game, $1000 donation to a high school food, drinks and entertainment, drinks and VIP club access $1,200

Oops.   Violations occurred? Absolutely.  Some of the accusations look accurate?  Sure.  But a majority of them appeared to be hyped up and one player was actually completely cleared.  Wouldn’t that cause someone with common sense to at least pause and say, “wait, maybe the accusations aren’t all they are cracked up to be.”?

Well, “common” and “sense” are just two of the words that are not present in Mark May’s vocabulary.  In the immediate aftermath of the Yahoo! allegations, before there was even time to read the report, May couldn’t get in front of a camera fast enough to call for the death penalty.  After the suspensions were meted out and those findings public, it would be reasonable for May (and anyone else who read the entire Yahoo! report AND who then read the NCAA findings) to conclude that he jumped the gun in calling for the death penalty.  Reasonable?  May laughs at that.  Apparently undaunted by and oblivious to the developments since the original Yahoo! report was released, May claims, “you’re talking about over 70 players[at UM alleged to have accepted extra benefits.]  If there was ever a situation that [merited the death penalty] this would be it. That’s my opinion and I stick to it. What does it take to get the death penalty now? 100 players? 125?”.  Surely, by that logic, Boise State should also get the death penalty.  Except no one is arguing that.  University of Miami Head Coach Al Golden, in a recent interview with The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz, commented on how May was “irresponsible” for making his initial claims and subsequently admonished May for refusing to back down when the current players that were found guilty were found to have committed minor violations.

Golden is obviously correct.  But what is going on here with the treatment of the University of Miami?

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is defined as the “tendency to filter information to retain only what conforms to one’s preferences, and to reject that information that does not.”  This aptly sums up Charles Robinson’s reporting and the knee-jerk reaction of pundits.

How else can you explain Robinson missing the obvious?  As Jason Whitlock points out, anyone that has been to Miami should have known that drugs would have to be present in the circles that Shapiro frequented, yet they aren’t mentioned.  Anyone taking a critical look at Shapiro’s accusations would have noticed that the chronology made no sense in the DeQuan Jones situation.  Anyone that took the time to thoroughly scan their own story would not have to edit it countless times (And by countless, I mean countless.  We literally lost count.) after it was published.  Instead, Robinson claims to know he had a big story 40 minutes into his initial contact with Shapiro. He then went about proving what he already believed to be true, rather than gathering all the evidence, and determining what is true, waiting until the day before the story dropped to contact major players (like Frank Haith).

And the media followed suit.  They always believed Miami was dirty.  When the accusations became public, it merely served to reinforce what they already believed.  They didn’t pause to consider the validity of the claims, the shady nature of the source (who is apparently tied to terrorism), or what a reasoned response to those accusations should be.  Truth wasn’t important, because they already knew the truth before the story, the story was simply more evidence.

Real Dangers from media Confirmation Bias

A parallel can be drawn to the Duke Lacrosse Scandal.  In that case, a stripper falsely accused several Duke Lacrosse players of rape.  In addition to national ridicule, Duke’s coach Mike Pressler was forced to resign and Duke cancelled the remainder of the 2006 season.  The punishments were real, but the accusation was a lie.

In this case, the scapegoat was UM President Donna Shalala.  She took money from what she believed to be a local businessman.  No one knew he was a criminal at the time.  And yet, Dick Vitale, among others, called for her immediate resignation after the scandal broke.  Never mind the fact that they were merely accusations and that the school president’s duty is to academics.  Never mind the fact that Donna Shalala’s performance as university president in the realm of academics is unmatched in the nation in her tenure at Miami.

Someone had to take the fall, and it should be her.  Just like Duke’s coach took the fall for something that, even if true (which it wasn’t), he was not responsible for preventing.

And so we wait, as evidence slows to a trickle, and the NCAA investigates.  We wait for the whole truth. I honestly don’t know what the NCAA will find.  They might find major violations.  They might hand out heavy penalties.  But the measured, appropriate response to the Boise State scandal in comparison to the out of control, rush to judgment in the University of Miami scandal vividly show just how dangerous confirmation bias can be when the media substitutes those biases for actual critical, reasonable thought.

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