Thoughts on the NBA Referee Scandal

Between Games 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals, disgraced ex-referee Tim Donaghy said that a handful of past postseason games were called impartially by the referees to extend a series per the machinations of the League and stations carrying the postseason games. It is believes that one game Donaghy was referring to was Game 6 of the WCF in the 2002 NBA Playoffs between the Kings and Lakers, a game the Lakers won to force a Game 7 in Sacramento. Commissioner David Stern quickly denounced Donaghy's claims, referring to him as a "singing felon" who is looking to lessen his prison sentence and take down another ref or two on his way out.

When I was in high school I worked as a youth soccer referee for some spending money. Each Saturday I'd referee two to three games at the ballpark, from the Under 6 games to the Under 13 games. (Only adult referees were allowed to referee the Under 18 games, which made sense... no point in having a referee who is younger than some of the players or who may be friends with the players.) Having been in this position - albeit a far, far, far, far cry from refereeing a professional sport - I can say with certainty that refereeing is by no means an objective endeavor. There is nothing objective about sports, from the fans to the announcers, to the referees. Everyone of these actors are human and have some sort of subjectivity. As a referee, the way a player or coach interacts with you affects your call making. It shouldn't, granted, but it does. If you have a coach that comes up to you before the game, is very polite and kind, and drops a line like, "Hey, last time we played these guys, I had two of my boys hurt from #25 on the other team, he plays really rough." That comment right there is going to nestle into the folds of your cranium and you are going to, subconsciously if not consciously, keep your eyes open when #25 is near the ball. Likewise, if a coach or player is exceptionally rude or mean to you, you can't help but let that affect your mental state. Or if you missed calling a rather blatant foul committed by Team X at one point, if they commit a more ticky tack foul 30 seconds later you're likely to call that, to makeup the first missed call. (This happens all the time in the NBA.)

What's worse is that due to the subjectivity of fans and announcers, they are going to interpret a ref's actions in a different light, even if, by some magical circumstance, the ref is purely objective. Here's an interesting thought experiment: imagine that the NBA took referees off the court and replaced it with people watching the game off the court, but having a way to signal a foul. How would that affect fans' interpretation of the calls being made? Would they feel differently if they couldn't actually see the refs, as humans, making the calls and interacting with the players? Take it a step further. Imagine that the NBA had a computer program that could watch the game and, in real time, make objective calls. And then imagine that you had half the games "ref'd" by humans watching the screens, and half by the computers, but you never told the fans which games were being refereed by humans and which by computers. Do you think the average fan could tell what games were refereed by humans vs. those by computers? Even if they knew a computer was making the calls, would they anthropomorphize the computer by assuming it "favored" one team over another?

In the end, I think that virtually every NBA ref is as objective as he or she can be. Yes, there can be rotten apples like Donaghy, but most, I think, are as objective as you're going to get.  It's far too easy to "see" a conspiracy - the NBA wants a Game 7, so "they" corroborated with the officials to "fix" the game!! I think such accusations are rubbish and too easy a cop out for a team that isn't playing well. Take Game 2 of this year's NBA Finals. In the first half the Celtics got several phantom calls and were seldom whistled for fouls they committed. I think even the most die-hard Celtic fan will admit to this discrepancy. Yet it's too easy to blame the Lakers loss (or Celtics win) solely on the refs that game. The Celtics played outstanding D most of the game, the Lakers let the refs affect them mentally, and (as has been the case this entire series), Gasol and Odom shrunk from the spotlight while Ray Allen has continued to play lights out.

Until referees are replaced by computers, there will be "homer calls" and "makeup calls," and we're just going to have to live with that. If you can't stomach the human element in the refereeing of your sport games, then start following referee-less sports, like chess.

Published Sunday, June 15, 2008 8:05 AM by Scott Mitchell
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