Monday, January 25th, 2010 at 3:39 pm  |  13 responses

Are Refs Really Villains?

Or are fans complaining too much?

by Clay Kallam

“I fight authority, and authority always wins.”
— John Mellencamp

Nobody likes bosses. Nobody likes being told what to do, and, especially, nobody likes being told that what they did was wrong.

But that, of course, is exactly what basketball refs do. They are the bosses on the court, and they tell players, coaches and sometimes even fans precisely how to behave. They determine what is acceptable behavior and what is not, and they define the nature of a foul – which of course changes from game to game, quarter to quarter and minute to minute.

Naturally, this does not make them popular. They are authority, and they always win. They can send players to the bench with fouls, they can send coaches to the locker room with technicals, they can even send spectators to the parking lot. They are, in that way, sadly reminiscent of the boss at work, the bureaucrat in the IRS office, and the cop who just pulled over some poor sap who was going eight miles aTom Izzon hour above the speed limit.

So it’s not surprising that everyone delights in booing calls that go against the home team. And of course, those refs always favor the other side – for evidence, just ask fans of any sport if their teams get more calls than their opponents. In short, even though the refs are biased, the bias never balances out. Whoever a fan is rooting for always gets fewer whistles blown in her favor, and whoever the fan is rooting against always gets the breaks.

It does not take a genius to realize this is mathematically impossible. If UConn is playing Tennessee, both teams can’t be getting hammered by bad calls; and if Arizona State goes through the Pac-10 season with officials conspiring against them, those same officials can’t be meeting before the game to make sure that Washington never gets a call either.

A moment’s consideration makes it clear the refs aren’t really out to get anyone. They are busy trying to do their job as best they can, trying to please their supervisors so they can get more and better games, and they honestly don’t care about the outcome. (As Skip Caray, an old-time announcer once pointed out when he went from broadcasting Atlanta Hawks’ games to NBA teams he didn’t follow regularly: “It’s amazing how much better the officiating is when you don’t care who wins.”)

But still, fans, players and coaches gnash their teeth and whine about the refs. They are all convinced the officials are out to get them, sometimes personally, and they know the other team gets all the calls. So they yell. They gesticulate. They scream. They pound their feet on the floor. They put on a show, presumably hoping that will result in more calls going their way.

There is no evidence, though, that all the histrionics – and there are some very impressive displays, Oscar-worthy even – make any difference. In fact, the constant abuse heaped on officials actually only makes things worse. Consider: Everyone complains about the state of officiating, and wishes there were more good refs. But how many people want to deal with the abuse for very low pay? Not many. And every time one good official is driven out of the avocation by the mindless screaming of people who’ve never read a rule book, the quality of officiating goes down.

If fans, players and coaches really want better officiating, then the best move would be to scream less and encourage more, just as they do with the players on their team. Which leads to another point: Officials are part of the game, part of the Van Chancellorathletic experience, and they, like players and coaches, make mistakes. At the high school, the players aren’t very good, in absolute terms, and the coaches aren’t either. The fans are unsophisticated, for the most part, and many have only a rudimentary grasp of the rules of the game. So why would anyone expect the officials to be working at a higher level than those around them? Of course, high school refs aren’t that good, which is why they’re working games with players and coaches who aren’t that good.

And that leads to the next question: Why, if mistakes by players and coaches are accepted as part of the flow of the game, can’t mistakes by the officials be accepted as well? Why are refs supposed to start out perfect, and then improve, when the apple of some fan’s eye, who just missed her fifth straight wideopen layup, is told to hang in there and keep working hard?

Another point: How many fans have read a rulebook cover to cover? How many players? How many coaches? How many of any group understand the positioning of refs on the court, and what each official is looking for at a given moment? How many have looked at a tape just to watch the officials, with a ref who understands the process?

In short, the guy 500 feet from the play whose knowledge of the rule book comes only from TV announcers who are hired for looks and a mellifluous voice probably doesn’t quite have the same perspective on a particular play as the trained official who’s standing five feet away.

So, again in short, shut up already. And that goes for players and coaches too. Screaming at the refs accomplishes nothing, except to drive good people away from the avocation, and occasionally to rattle weaker officials who will respond by making more bad calls than before.

After all, what good does it do? As John Mellencamp pointed out, authority’s always going to win anyway.

For more from Clay Kallam, and more about women’s basketball, go to Full Court Press.

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  • riggs

    all they need are a long mustache to twirl.

  • http://digitalthread.com AlbertBarr

    Reffing games is not something to do if you want people to like you…that said, I think many college athletes (and other levels) have reffed games on the side for money…I don’t think knowing the rules or understanding their plight makes players yell at refs less. In fact, I think it reinforces that fact that they DO REALLY HONESTLY think the refs are making the wrong call.

  • http://www.another48minutes.com Gerard Himself

    I understand the point of this article, but I think that we as NBA fans complain so much because we feel there is no consistency (and that I wouldn’t mind if the NBA gets a bit “tougher” again)

  • http://slamonline.com niQ

    Although it might slow the game a bit, I still wish the instant replay was used more often. OR At least when there is a controversial call. But then again, by saying that Perkins will probably abuse it on every single play… since, you know, he is never wrong. LOL

  • http://fashionsensei.files.wordpress.com/2008/02/jackie-moon.jpg Jackie Moon

    “Are Refs Really Villains?

    “Or are fans complaining too much?”


    Every serious fan or player should be required to officiate a game, whether it’s a rec league, or fourth graders, to appreciate what it’s like to be a ref and the challenges of being accurate or even consistent in calling a game.

  • k

    There’s nothing wrong with defending the job they do as difficult. But it’s their job. They ARE going to make mistakes, and they have no right to be standoffish about it. When you are an NBA official, your ONLY obligation is to get the call right, that’s literally all you do, so when you do a bad job of it, or it could be perceived that you did, you should keep your mouth shut and take your medicine. Many refs are very reasonable about this, when they make a controversial call, or one that they are less than 100% certain about, they will allow players and coaches on the wrong end of it to let them hear about it to a reasonable extent and not retaliate with technicals. And then there are some, like Joey Crawford, that take any criticism, or even behavior not even directed at them that could be seen as questioning their authority, as an excuse to demonstratively assert their authority for everyone to see.

    When your job is one like NBA officials have, you simply are not entitled to pride. In a perfect world, no one would foul anyone or travel, or if they did they would call it on themselves, but this isn’t a perfect world, so your presence is a necessary evil, the players and coaches ARE the game, and you as an official should have the humility to understand that. That doesn’t mean you change your call because someone complains about it, but you shouldn’t think for a second it’s your right to punish them simply for complaining because it hurts your completely unsubstantiated ego.

  • http://www.digitalthread.com AlbertBarr

    nice post, K.

  • Teddy-the-Bear

    Fans are complaining too much? ARE YOU SERIOUS? Have you ever seen Joey Crawford officiate?
    Watch this video: Joey Crawford pushes Damon Jones out of bounds and calls the foul on Chauncey Billups. SLOW MOTION so you can actually SEE what’s happening.
    Some refs are reasonable, some are good at what they do, and others are undoubtedly either dirty or bad at what they do. WATCH THE VIDEO.

  • Teddy-the-Bear

    You can’t look at an NBA game seeing the phantom calls, no-calls, or preferential treatment, and NOT think that the (some) refs are horrendous. Now, much of that is the fault of the NBA organization itself, but the refs carry out their dirty work.

  • k

    Agreed, Teddy, the performance of the refs is not the NBA’s fault as such, but if David Stern is going to be more protective and defensive of his officials than any other Commissioner, then they should be, if not the “best,” at least the “cleanest,” but now we know even that is obviously not the case.

    Not to overstate the allegedly isolated case of Tim Donaghy, but there’s something seriously wrong when a ref was systematically fixing the results of games, and DIDN’T EVEN STAND OUT.

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  • Someloser

    I’ve officiated games and, even though I understand it’s a tough job, the type of missed/bad calls you see in NBA games aren’t a product of a single referee judgement, it’s the whole organization. It’s the policy of the league to call touch fouls and not call travels. The problem is that it gets tough to stay consistent will bulls@#t like that, so they blow some calls. Then they get hammered on for being lousy when in fact that’s what they are required to be, by league standards. Good refereeing would change this league and the upper echelon doesn’t want that.

  • birdguy

    Ref some games before you pass judgement