Basketball officiating is in crisis

19 Feb

I like to watch basketball. I haven’t watched as much this year as I have in the past, but I have watched many many basketball games in my life. Lately I’ve been watching mostly Big Ten and NBA games. The one thing those two basketball environments have in common is distractingly bad refereeing.

The Big Ten is widely regarded as the best college basketball conference, and it’s being destroyed by a terrible brand of ref-baiting clutch/grab/flop/dive anti-basketball. The most obvious example of this strategy is Wisconsin, which is an essentially unwatchable team. The strategy is this: commit several fouls on every possession. When there are so many fouls, the refs simply won’t call all of them. If you play like this in every game for several seasons, the refs will adapt and see your style of play as normal, and will call hardly any of the fouls at all. Some idiots praise this as “hard-nosed defense” or “fundamentals” or some such nonsense. I hate these people.

The NBA’s biggest referee problem is the well-known star system. It’s an open secret that the rules are applied differently for different players. If you don’t watch the Heat, you might be surprised that LeBron James never travels or fouls anyone. It’s one thing to have lax enforcement of traveling and moving screens etc., as long as that lax enforcement is consistent. It’s a total joke. NBA game commentators will openly talk about which players get “respect” from the referees during games. “Player X hasn’t been around long enough to get that kind of call” and such. A lot of people see that as part of the game and it drives me crazy.

I’m sure it’s difficult to call basketball at a high level. I don’t expect perfection. But I do expect consistency and competence. One of the key factors in both the college and NBA problems is the level of familiarity the referees have with the coaches and players they’re officiating. These guys see each other over and over every season. This is a structural problem.

Here’s what I would do if I were the czar of basketball.

Right now NBA officials are employed and supervised by the NBA. College officials are employed and supervised by the various NCAA conferences. They should all be employed and supervised by USA Basketball. USA Basketball should be in charge of refs from high school up. Referees would start at the bottom and move up. They wouldn’t be tied to a specific league or conference or level. The best refs would call NBA games, big college games, D-League games, etc. This will obviously never happen. One thing that would be a necessary prerequisite would be standardizing the rules between levels,* and the NCAA and NBA would never give up their authority over the rules, let alone over their referees. They’re much more concerned with protecting their little fiefdoms than improving the quality of play. The NBA officials union would also presumably stop this even if everyone else wanted to do it.

*Keep an eye out for an upcoming post about how to do this.

Think about how glorious it would be. Instead of refs with longstanding grudges against certain players/coaches, refs becoming desensitized to foul avalanches, refs dealing with crazy travel schedules to meet league demands, you’d have refs calling the rules disinterestedly and consistently, at all levels. Lots of people watch all kinds of different levels of basketball on TV. Knowing that games would be called the same way from high school to the NBA would tremendously increase the pleasure of watching. To say nothing of the benefit of players. They could focus on playing instead of working the refs.

I could do some research and find all kind of anecdotes about officials being swayed by their relationships with players, or studies about foul rates and all kinds of other nonsense but I won’t. This seems like such a self-evident problem and such an easy solution that a single paragraph would have been enough. I stretched it out just for you, dear reader.

One Response to “Basketball officiating is in crisis”


  1. How to standardize the rules of basketball | The Pensive Years - April 1, 2013

    […] do a lot of complaining about basketball officials. NBA and NCAA both. They’re not good. I wrote a post awhile ago about how to improve the situation. That post was about how referees are supervised and […]

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