Saturday, August 9, 2014

SQ14 #14 Soapbox: NBA Refs

Name all the NBA referees you can.  Now name half that number in any other sport.  That is a problem, or at least a symptom of a problem. When did these judges of fair play morph into preening potentates of privilege?  They threaten to become just as arrogant and entitled as players, with all the negativity that aspect entails.  This isn’t how it is supposed to be.

Google referee + ego and you will find about a billion references to guidelines of its proper role in adjudicating sport.  And about another billion about how, and how often, and how completely, it goes wrong.  We shouldn’t expect our referees and umpires to be perfect, we should, however, expect them to be fair and unbiased.  I’ve chosen just a couple of quotes, which I have referenced only loosely since they could and should be the hallmark of any sporting league, from youth to professional, anywhere in the world:

From a youth soccer intro clinic:
The best referees are those who are not remembered after the game because they have allowed the players to play

From The Referee and the Rules -- South Carolina Swimming:
Truly competent officials don't let their ego get in the way of doing a good job

As for our purveyors of professional basketball propriety, when did a blocking call become a 6-hop stage move parodying Madonna?  An ejection requires a throwing pantomime that carries the performer halfway across the court, really?  Does a continuation foul really call for a series of  contortions worthy only of pop singer’s backup dance group?  Why does the league office suspend players for stumbling into a referee, but a puffed-chest and bristling striped-shirt baiting players is hushed and swept under the rug?  Joey Crawford?  Don’t get me started!  He should have been fired outright long ago and featured on a training pamphlet for NBA referees on how NOT to do it!

Let’s be clear, professional basketball has to be one of the hardest sports activities to officiate.  Sports, almost all of them, are games of inches, but home plate doesn’t have to “establish position’ before the ball arrives, tennis doesn’t have “incidental contact,“ and football gives the refs nearly a half minute to rest between most plays.  Basketball is a contact (just not collision, supposedly) sport that takes place at breakneck (just ask the Pelicans’ Ryan Anderson) speed with complicated (one forearm but not both, forearm but not hand, both feet out of the lane) rules, and seven more players to watch than there are men to keep an eye on them.  Referees have to run almost as far (we're talking miles here) as the players in a game, but they don’t get subs and have to often run backwards to keep an eye on the action.  Almost every night someone gets hurt, sometimes badly, occasionally horribly--and emotions and tempers run high.  Let’s just say it isn’t a cushy job at a desk and, oh yeah, there are tens of thousands of people yelling, often at you, and most of the time at least half of them are pi$$ed at you specifically at least a third of the time.

Referees certainly deserve protection from player, coach, owner, and fan abuse, be it physical, verbal, or any other extreme expression; but their “protection” from their own actions has gone waaay tooo far.  Let’s figure out a way to reward competence, not conceal incompetence and misbehavior.   At the very least, there should be available one blackball for each team in each playoff series by which they could prohibit a ref they feel is biased from working their series; maybe even all their games that season.  And they should be able to cast a vote/strike at the end of each season--three strikes (10% of the league) and you are out, at least of the next season, or at least down to the D-league for reeducation on proper conduct and a reminder of how good they have it on the lime-lighted stage at the top of the basketball heap.

The league has been very conscious of distancing themselves from convicted ref Donaghy, and rightfully so since even the hint of fixing threatens the integrity of their multi-billion dollar sport (and TV contract which is considerably higher than that of professional wrestling, so maybe show-time doesn’t trump true competition).  We should not expect, nor desire, automatons since referees need strong character and a healthy ego in order to not be intimidated, influenced, or bribed.  However, flamboyance is not called for and does a disservice to the legions of hard-working arbiters of propriety and gamesmanship in all levels of all sports throughout the world. 

Double the number of refs, lighten their load, and allow decompression time so they aren’t in what is admittedly a pressure cooker so constantly (after all, rumor is that they are, indeed, human).  Treat the D-league as a farm team for referees, as it is, slowly, becoming for teams.  Counter the fact that there is currently far too little (or perhaps no) accountability--rotate through the D-league the bottom 5? 10? 15? rated NBA refs to be replaced by the top 5? 10? 15? rated in lower league.  I know the league does something to grade referees but I rather like the following formula:
Rating = good (calls + no-calls) / (bad calls + missed calls)

Return for a moment to name recognition.  This is great for players, for teams, for attendance, for branding, or for selling sports memorabilia.  Not so good for referees; in fact it is a poison pill for the game and competitive standards in the sport.  Name recognition? If it is not for least-biased or top-rated-correct-calls for the year--suspend the top three (or rotate into D-league) for next year.  I consider it that much of a threat to the game.

Only 51 days until training camp.[Discuss on CG Forums!]


  1. Anonymous3:19 PM

    I wonder if the more acute player temper tantrums in basketball does not have something to do with referee flair on the court. Unlike many other sports, the faces and voices of players are more connected to the game, fans, and yes, referees. No doubt there is a lot of trash talk in football and baseball, but we fans are more insulated from that aspect of the game. My point is that a basketball ref has to deal with that more emotional and telegraphed display of contempt by an emotionally hurt is little wonder they return the favor. But as far as bribery excuse. Intentionally throwing a game hurts everyone involved.

  2. This is a topic near and dear to my heart. It is very frustrating when you watch a ref stare at a play and there is an obvious foul or the player steps out of bounds with the refs standing right there watching and no call is made. Or, when they make ridiculous calls on players not even near the play. Or when they let stars like LeBron get away with murder rather than to call a foul on him.

    There are a few good refs. I think Tony Brothers is one. I have seen him make a call from across the court when Dick Bavetta stood right next to the play and didn't call a very obvious foul.

    I've long said that they need to do something to allow coaches and players to challenge biased officiating. The only thing that the current system does is allow refs to do whatever they wish without players or coaches being able to call them on it.

    Good article.


This blog does not allow anonymous comments.