Making the Tough Calls

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Being a referee in any sport can be a thankless task—it took a referee strike in the NFL for many to appreciate that. Make the correct call and your name is rarely mentioned. In-fact, when the officials aren’t discussed during a game it’s a complement—along the lines of being seen and not heard. But screw up on a play and you become public enemy number one: the object of scorn for thousands of people in the arena, and countless others watching at home.
 
 

Being a NBA referee is particularly trying. There’s a segment of every NBA team’s fan-base that insists their team gets screwed over by referees on a nightly basis—that there’s some sort of sinister conspiracy involving David Stern and the league’s officials. To get a sense of this small, but vocal minority of NBA fans, read the comments section of any game recap, type in ‘NBA Officials’ into Twitter, or listen to Mark Cuban go on one of his customary rants.

To give a more specific example: for the past few years it’s been trendy to complain that the league—and their minions in the form of NBA officials—favours the Miami Heat. As the narrative goes, the Heat get every call, LeBron is coddled by the referees, and their recent 24-game winning streak results in-part from this special treatment. Again, a small but vocal minority.

The majority of fans understand that there’s no agenda or grand conspiracy to punish any particular NBA team. However, that same majority understands that referees are human and human beings make mistakes. Essentially basketball is a game where 10 supremely skilled and super-athletic individuals travel up and down the court at lighting quick speed. NBA referees are required to follow the action and, for the most part, make split second decisions on what they’ve just witnessed.

It’s easy to criticize a referee when you’re watching a game at home, viewing the play in slow motion from multiple camera angles, without the distraction of 20,000 screaming fans. But imagine yourself in the arena trying to make an instant call on a ‘bang-bang’ play—should I call a charge? Did he set his feet correctly? Did the ball hit the backboard before he blocked it? Is it goaltending? These are decisions that are made in the heat of the moment. And they are tough decisions to make.

Although the league supports the job its officials carry out, and is undoubtedly fully aware of the difficulty of their nightly task, they have become very sensitive to the fans grumblings about officiating. In part this might be a result of the fall-out from the Tim Donaghy scandal a few years ago; a scandal that did immense damage to the league’s credibility with regards to its officiating.

On a number of occasions this year the NBA has issued public apologies to teams and their fans after botched calls. The Raptors have received two such apologies after particularly bad blown calls against the Bobcats and the Bulls, while in the most high profile mea culpa this year, the league admitted that Dahntay Jones should’ve been called for a foul on Kobe Bryant—Bryant sprained his ankle as Jones went under him late in the game.

The merits of the NBA offering such post-game apologies are debatable. While it’s commendable that the league office is addressing an issue that its fans care deeply about—and an issue that it’s often been accused of being infuriatingly silent about—the effect on the officials might be detrimental. Publicly apologizing for a blown play is an indirect criticism of those officiating the game—another way of telling the world that the referees didn’t do their jobs correctly and we, the league office, are trying to clean up the mess.

But what’s done is done, the play cannot be reversed, and all that is achieved is a very public dressing down for the officials involved. No amount of next-day apologizing is going to make the fans of the team involved feel any better. That’s not to say that NBA officials shouldn’t be held accountable for mistakes that they make—especially if they’re really egregious—but public humiliation isn’t the way to go.

But as reactive as a post-game apology is, in other ways the NBA has been very progressive in helping out its officials by altering the way the game is officiated.

Over the past couple seasons the league has taken great strides to help the officials on the court make the correct decisions, and they should be commended for that. Referees are now being advised not to call a blocking foul when an offensive player leans into a defender attempting to draw contact. The message seems to be getting through. What’s more, officials are now allowed to review flagrant fouls (both 1 and 2) and can review and reverse basket interference (although that didn’t help the Bulls the other night) and out-of-bounds calls in the last two minutes of a game. On-court reviews are now taking place more than ever, and although some people complain that it’s slowing down the game, it’s important to ensure that the correct call is made down the stretch.

Human error will always be a part of the game of basketball, but the league has proven that it can help its officials immensely by giving them the ability to slow things down, check the replay of a particular incident, and reverse an ill-advised snap decision that was made. The league could go further in this regard, however.

For example, if coaches were allowed a certain amount of challenges during a game, similar to the NFL, it would help eradicate the feeling that games are being decided on a handful of contentious calls. If the coach challenges a play and the referees’ call stands after review, then that team, again just like in the NFL, would be deducted a timeout. Teams would still have to be selective about when they wanted to stop the game, but ultimately it would result in the correct call being made more often than not.

Moving towards FIBA rules on basket interference—a nightmare to call—and perhaps allowing each player 7 fouls instead of 6, so that each foul call doesn’t carry so much weight, would also ease the burden on referees. Sometimes officials can only be as good as the tools they have at their disposal.

And the players can do their part in helping out officials too. Although I can’t stand the number of techs being handed out for taunting, and the mildest of disagreements between players (Why shouldn’t LeBron be allowed to stare at Jason Terry after he dunks on him?!) players whining after every call is equally infuriating. The constant bickering to officials doesn’t help their cause. A referee that’s intimidated might end up making a bad call in the favour of a player who’s constantly yapping; or just as bad, they might be reluctant to make a call in that same player’s favour.

There are always going to be times when an official makes a terrible call—one that anyone at home could have made correctly, in real time or not. But more often than not the correct calls are made. The league is moving in the right direction as far as implementing rule changes and allowing officials to review more and more plays, but more can be done. Sure, it’s a fine balance between allowing the game to flow and making sure the majority of calls are correct, but most fans, and the referees themselves, would be in favour of simply getting things right.

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