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How are NBA referees so consistently poor?

Russell Westbrook, the former MVP. (Wikipedia Commons)
Roar Guru
3rd May, 2016
16

The NBA playoffs are a time for skill, talent, athleticism and more flashiness.

The top athletes play for the highest stakes and normally the best team will win over the course of a seven-game series.

But the stench that lingers over the game and the league remains low-quality officiating at the end of games.

The sight of referees taking centre stage due to some terrible decisions towards the end of games is a real concern. Over the last two days we have seen examples of why something must be done to address this massive issue to restore the credibility of the game.

The Oklahoma City-San Antonio game saw a strange finish where Dion Waiters shoved Manu Ginobili away while trying to inbound the ball.

This wasn’t a push in play or a glancing blow – it was a decent shove, right in the middle of the chest, during a dead-ball situation. A referee is right there and calls nothing, despite this being a clear violation of the rules.

Head referee Ken Mauer came out after the game and admitted they missed a call and that Waiters should have been called for an offensive foul. Really Ken? You guys missed something?

And you needed to watch video to see that rather than make the call from a foot away? San Antonio lost the game, and who is to know they wouldn’t have in any case, but the fact remains this was an unacceptable blown call.

In Game 7 between Indiana and Toronto, the Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan secured a loose ball late in the game by shoving Ian Mahimni right in the middle of the back on an attempted alley-oop.

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Again, there was at least one referee in a perfect position who chose not to make a call – you don’t think that is called a foul halfway through the third quarter?

Of course it is, and as fans you would expect it to be called a foul regardless of the game situation. Indiana were still down three points and may have needed luck to win the game, but a violation was committed and they would have been confident they could continue a 17-4 run and send the game to overtime.

Now these are selective examples, and a popular counter argument to poor refereeing is that both the Spurs and Pacers had plenty of chances to win their respective games. That is a moot point, because basketball revolves around the end of close games.

Teams get themselves into a position to win a game in those last two minutes, regardless of whether they have shot 42 per cent from the field (as the Spurs did) or lost the rebound battle by a total of 13 (as the Raptors did).

The players are held accountable for making mistakes in the final minutes with legacies and careers shaped at crunch time, so why should referees be absolved of responsibility when they make calls that prove them to be either dreadfully incompetent, or incredibly selective in what they choose to see, and call?

Another argument made by referee apologists is that the rules of basketball are so open to interpretation and in some cases that is very true. Earlier in the fourth quarter of the Raptors-Pacers game, Indiana star Paul George was called for an offensive foul for pushing off on DeRozan and it was probably the right call.

All the same, the referee would have been able to make a case for calling DeRozan for the defensive foul. In that case, it is a fine line and a judgement call that fans and players alike live with. In the two cases above, not only did they influence the result but they were on calls that had no grey area – both were clear, blatant violations of the rules.

The subjective nature of the rules of the game are a crutch on which the league can lean when certain decisions are questioned and that will not change. The instant replay ruling has been a great addition and has enabled many of the late-game shot and out-of-bounds calls to be reviewed and changed if necessary, so perhaps this technology can be extended.

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This is not the 1980s. Human error shouldn’t be held up as a facet of NBA refereeing life when the technology is available to just get calls right. Granted, technology will never end the block-charge debate or determine whether a push-off was undoubtedly instigated by the offensive player because there is a degree of uncertainty involved with those calls.

But in cases such as those above, an off-court official should have the ability to overrule referees who miss such obvious calls, either through incompetence, choice or poor positioning.

The controversial calls at the end of games will always generate interest and debate and be under more scrutiny than calls in the first half or even earlier in the last quarter. When you see a call such as the Waiters one, you can’t help but think maybe it’s a ratings grab by the NBA?

Not only are the Thunder a higher draw than the Spurs, but a long series is a ratings bonanza, and if the Spurs had gone up 2-0 this was shaping as a short series. Games are money, right?

But to put this on the NBA is mischievous and without merit – the responsibility on how these games are playing out at the end sits squarely with the referees.

I doubt they are instructed to put the whistle away in the case of blatant indiscretions, but at the same time, a weakly delivered “sorry” after the fact doesn’t suffice as an excuse when they have made a clear error.

So how do the best basketball referees in the league make such monumental blunders? Body positioning? Sure, the game moves so fast and sometimes they simply cannot get a clear view of the ball and any subsequent contact. Lack of understanding? You would hope not, but human nature is that a referee might miss a call based on not knowing every rule or being unable to apply the laws under extreme pressure. I mean, players miss shots at the end of the game right? So why can’t we cut referees a little slack when they make mistakes?

A more concerning possibility is that they miss calls by choice. The story of Tim Donaghy is worth exploring to add some context. Donaghy was a respected NBA official from 1994-2007 who resigned from his post amid rumours of an investigation into allegations that he bet on games which he officiated.

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Donaghy was found guilty of these charges in 2008 and sentenced to prison time.

In his book, Personal Foul, he talks not only of the extents he went to in order to influence games, but also how easy it was to do. Indeed, while the NBA spends an incredible amount of time and resources on maintaining the integrity of the league and its officials, the fact remains that Donaghy’s misdemeanours only came to light as part of a bigger FBI investigation.

The NBA themselves had no idea that one of their most high-profile officials was manipulating certain games via subtle methods that were essentially cheating. Donaghy made the choice to miss calls and blow his whistle when it suited him for years and no-one was any the wiser.

It’s a long bow to draw to suggest that the likes of Donaghy have influenced the way the games are refereed today, or that there is any current referee with the moral compass of questionable motives which Donaghy had, and I don’t intend to make that claim.

All the same, when the referees continue to make mistakes that directly influence games, you cannot help but at least think about why that is and ask the question – why does it continue to happen?

The NBA only knows, but they had better not let it continue to influence the result of games as we get deeper into the post-season.

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