Should The NBA Fine Players For Criticizing Officials?


The practice of fining referee complaints has come back into the public spotlight with Chris Paul’s recent criticism of a referee, which cost him $25,000. However, barring verbally abusive or derogatory language, players complaining about matters of officiation should not be fined in the manner that coaches, owners and comparatively serious offenders are. 


Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer

In years past, team owners and players have often incited basketball fans against referees for what they thought were poor calls. The politicking often worked, inspiring conspiracy theories and hurting the NBA’s reputation. In 2010, commissioner David Stern signaled that he was fed up with the widespread criticism of referees, and would crack down with suspensions and fines.

Since, we’ve seen plenty of the NBA’s $25,000 fines doled out to team brass. When a coach or owner goes on the record about their frustration with an official, it can inadvertently undermine the credibility of future calls should they appear in or out of his team’s favour. You can bet that after Doc Rivers famously claimed officials were overly tough on the Boston Celtics’ star player, Kevin Garnett, following the team’s loss against the New York Knicks in April of 2013, fans kept an eye out for future “bad” calls. Rivers deserved his $25,000 fine. So did coach Jason Kidd of the Brooklyn Nets, who made a similarly dubious claim during last year’s Game 5 against the Toronto Raptors. The coach alleged Joe Johnson wasn’t given his deserved amount of free throws and that the ref failed to call a final-second foul on Shaun Livingston, costing his team the game.

Players guilty of relatively serious verbal misconduct on and off the court also find themselves staring down the barrel of a $25,000 fine. Matt Barnes was fined the amount in January for allegedly directing profanities at a fan (he took to Twitter to clarify that he was talking to Suns owner Robert Sarver). Stephen Jackson threatened an opponent on Twitter in 2012. There are plenty more examples. Public profanity shows flagrant disrespect for the league and its fans. Threats can be criminal and lead to an unsafe work environment. These are serious offences and fair grounds for a fine.

In comparison, players’ refereeing complaints have little impact, real, moral, or otherwise. Why should they be served what appears to be the league’s benchmark fine for backtalking team brass and players guilty of weightier offences? Proponents can only make two reasonable arguments for the punishment. The first is predicated on the outburst changing the game outcome. The second, that a complaint implies game-fixing or crooked officiating. Both fail under scrutiny.

In almost all cases, we can definitively say that player complaints rarely change the outcome of a game. Following Game 4 of the 2014 Eastern Conference finals, Paul George blamed the Indiana Pacers’ loss to the Miami Heat on a lopsided free throw count (34-17). He fruitlessly suggested officials favoured the Heat and was slapped with a $25,000 fine. In 2012, Derrick Rose was fined $25,000 after voicing his frustration over the officiating during a Bull-Knicks game. A hard foul was not acknowledged by referees, he said, but the score remained unchanged (obviously). We could go on. Nobody actually expects a player’s words to sway the scoreboard. The contention doesn’t add up.

A stronger argument for curbing backtalk is protecting the integrity of NBA officials and the idea of a fair game. However, this blanket argument fails to consider the reasons why a player might argue a ref’s call. The assumption limits a player’s ability to voice concerns about legitimate oversights without being accused of making a graver claim. Also, complaints often occur in the heat of the moment. Unless a player repeatedly gripes to the point that a game-fixing allegation can be more strongly inferred, common sense dictates that they’re probably just venting. That’s a crime every athlete’s guilty of, and it doesn’t justify a practically automatic $25,000 fine on its own.

When compared to worse offences, fining a player for inconsequentially criticizing an official seems excessive. That isn’t to say that players like Chris Paul don’t ever earn their fines.

Recently, Paul suggested during a game that a referee assessed too many technical fouls against his Los Angeles Clippers team. Again, his venting had no effect on the outcome, yet he was slapped with a $25,000 fine. While Paul should not have been fined for his complaint itself, the language he used to refer to referee Lauren Holtkamp was extremely patronizing. (The words, “This might not be for her” come to mind).

This cannot be dismissed. The league is very comfortable, and very justified, in discouraging race- or gender-based discrimination through heavy fines. Recognizing such comments for what they are is particularly important during a time of civil unrest across North America, where the treatment of race, and thereby gender, are being rightly reassessed within and without the NBA.

However, the league’s fine first, never ask questions approach fails to draw a distinction between problematic speech like Paul’s and what amounts to no more than inconsequential grumbling. This system needs to be replaced with a more common sense approach.
A player’s complaint against officials largely amounts to letting off steam and should not be grounds for a fine on its own. However, when frustration leads to inappropriate language, racism, or sexism, players better have their chequebooks handy.
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