NBA

Tech This! Empowering NBA Refs Hurts Fans

| by Hoops Karma

Remember when always-has-to-prove-he's-in-charge Joey Crawford ejected Tim Duncan on April 15, 2007 for laughing on the bench? Refs now have even more power. In a move applauded by many NBA fans, the league recently gave the referees far more leeway and power to assign technical fouls against players for arguing calls. The key adjective used in the language of the expanded rule is “overt,” as in the refs can now hand out a technical whenever a player has an “overt” reaction to a call.

These reactions include air punches, raising one’s hands incredulously, striking one’s own arm to demonstrate a foul, running at a ref to complain, excessively inquiring about a call no matter the tone of the inquiries, and any use of body language to show displeasure. Stu Jackson, NBA Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, explained that the idea is to get players “to not complain.”

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Coupled with that new rule, the league also just announced an increase in fines for technical fouls. Each of a player’s or coach’s first five T’s of the year had cost them $1,000 in the past, but it’s been bumped to $2,000. The escalating scale now goes as high as $5,000 each for technical #16 of the year on up.

At first and in theory, these two expanded pieces of legislation sound good. Players can get out of hand expressing their displeasure with officials at times, so put a stop to it. We’ve become accustomed to veterans like Ray Allen and Derek Fisher calmly asking for explanations all game long. We’ve become accustomed to superstars like KobeBryant and LeBron James approaching refs in shock and open-mouthed after every call—no matter against which team or player—to show how amazed they are that anyone on their team has any fouls and that the other team hasn’t been fouled down to three players by now. It can get annoying, and the NBA feels fans will greater enjoy a game in which the players simply play.

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Great idea, but I have a funny feeling this idea is headed to a bad place we’ve already seen from time to time: absolute referee control in a way that seems to always benefit the league’s darling storylines at the most opportune times. I don’t want to get all Tim Donaghy, but there are a few facts that at least hint that the league is getting some desired outcomes through its use of referees.

  1. Donaghy has already outlined quite specifically how the league does this, and every game he’s ever mentioned to demonstrate how it’s done is one that indeed looked fishy.
  2. The league has never sued Donaghy, even though they can afford way better lawyers and claim he's completely wrong.
  3. While reffing, Donaghy was able to win bets against the line at a 70 to 80% clip based simply on knowing referee assignments for each game and overhearing his crew partners’ comments before games. Winning at that percentage against the line is nearly impossible without inside information, which the NBA claims does not exist.
  4. During the 2010 playoffs, Donaghy put together an even better record guessing game winners for a radio station, again based on knowing referee assignments.
  5. Donaghy convinced the FBI he was telling the truth by answering questions while hooked up to a polygraph machine about the NBA’s manipulation of games and series. Investigators were so convinced he was telling the truth, one of them wrote the forward for his book.
  6. There have only been 7 different champions during Stern’s 27 years at the helm of the league. There were 8 different champs in the 11 prior seasons (1973-1983).
  7. Pretty much every single post-season WTF reffing situation (ridiculously one-sided foul totals in pivotal games, crazy fourth-quarter foul counts, stars being obviously protected, the style and feel of a series changing drastically due to a change in refs) from the past few decades has helped the team that would clearly benefit the league from a financial and/or storyline angle. And everyone is aware that these games and series exist – it certainly didn’t take Donaghy for people to know that the Kings (2002) and Mavericks (2006) should have won titles already.
  8. It’s already commonly accepted that refs change the natural order of things (or at least keep it from being consistent). How do we know this? Announcers and fans alike use phrases such as “he’s earned that call” (with the implication that he is a veteran or superstar), “make-up call,” “you don’t make that call at the end of a close game,” “you don’t make that call in the playoffs,” and “throw away the whistle and just let them play.” All of these phrases assume the game should be called different ways at different times, let alone the fact that refs will mention that different refs have different styles and ways they call games.

Now with an expanded rule and increased fines in place to help empower referees and ensure no one openly complains about whatever direction they steer a game, expect more NBA-friendly outcomes (I’m talking more about the playoffs than the regular season) that allow easily marketable storylines to prosper. And while those marketable teams and players are prospering, players who are getting screwed will have one less avenue to show that they know they’re getting screwed.

If you remember Game Six of the Kings-Lakers series from 2002, you remember the officials flat out handed the game to Los Angeles through numerous phantom calls, but at least the Kings were able to openly display dismay for what was happening, cluing in the fans that things were really bogus. The NBA has already tried to eliminate the ability for players and coaches to talk about refs by throwing around huge fines if they say anything after a game or through their social network sites, even if it’s dead-on correct. The league has also quieted down announcers who might point out ridiculous calls by putting many of them on payroll, either through the league or individual teams (for example, all of the local radio and TV guys are employed by the local club, not by an impartial media outlet).

This newest legislation is only the next step to help the league quiet any opposition to how their referees operate, plus this effort helps make sure fans believe every winner really was the true winner because they’re less likely to see or hear someone expressing the opposite. Think of how often you hear an announcer or fellow fan say something like “it must have been the right call because he’s not complaining,” so you can’t assume fans always know when they’re seeing straight-up bull. Well guess what – that one simple way of showing fans things are not right is being eliminated. Under the guise of shutting up loud-mouthed complainers (You really think the league will let Kobe or LeBron or Dwight get ejected in a meaningful game for too many technicals?) the NBA is really just taking away non-glory teams’ ability to argue for what’s right during a game. The result is that they’ll now have even less of a chance, and even less people will notice they’re not getting a fair shake because the ultimate insiders (players) are slowly being told to say nothing.