Links: Blame the Refs!

by April 23, 2010

by Lang Whitaker

David Stern is tremendous. Last night reporters in Oklahoma City asked him about the fines he’s levied against Phil Jackson during the postseason, and Stern went the heck off:

“I wish I had it to do all over again, and starting 20 years ago, I’d be suspending Phil and Pat Riley for all the games they play in the media, because you guys know that our referees go out there and they knock themselves out and do the best job they can. We have coaches who will do whatever it takes to try to work them publicly,” Stern said. “What that does is erode fan confidence, and then we get some of the situations that we have. So, our coaches should be quiet because this is a good business that makes them good livings and supports a lot of families, and if they don’t like it, they should go get a job someplace else.”

Go get a job someplace else!

Stern said he understands tensions run high in the Playoffs, but added:

“And if someone wants to try me in the rest of these playoffs, you know, make my day, because the game is too important and I don’t think that the people who trash it are respecting it and we’ll do what we have to do — to players and coaches alike.”

Stern was being a little hyperbolic, of course — at least I think he was; I sure wouldn’t want to make his day — but does he have a point? When a coach criticizes referees, does it erode fan confidence?

Let me humbly submit that first of all, there might be something more obvious eroding fan confidence: poor officiating. Fans aren’t stupid. They see refs wait to see if a shot goes in before calling a shooting foul. They see certain players get more calls than other players. These are things that happen every night in NBA games. They happen in other sports, too: umpires not calling third strikes on batters with a reputation for having a good eye; veteran cornerbacks getting away with pass interference calls that younger players would totally get flagged for. Maybe it’s gamesmanship, maybe it’s veteran savvy, maybe it’s just ingrained in the unwritten rules of sports. Basically, officials sometimes make calls that aren’t consistent. And sometimes they make calls that we all want to assign some deeper meaning. For instance, last night, with the game on the line in Chicago, a close call went AGAINST LeBron James as he tried to drive to the basket. Moments later, Joakim Noah put LeBron in a headlock with no foul called while boxing him out on that final rebound. Suddenly, people wondered if the League wanted Cleveland to lose a game to draw out the series.

If Stern or the League office is genuinely worried about the eroding of fan confidence, a simple way to stop any erosion would be to have the referees make calls that don’t inspire doubt. Take the end of that Denver/Utah Game 1, for instance. The refs called a ton of fouls. It didn’t make for the most poetic athletic expression, but they called it evenly, tagging both team with offensive fouls down the stretch, even fouling out Melo with about 90 seconds left. I tweeted that I thought it had been an evenly reffed game despite all the fouls called, and nobody disagreed with me.

What the coaches and players have been doing is basically fanning the flames; they’re confirming fan’s suspicions that there actually just might be some kind of vast institutional conspiracy against their teams!

The truth is, I am sad to tell you, there isn’t any vast institutional conspiracy against any team. For years now people have talked about how the NBA must want bigger-market teams to be good because it would help “ratings,” even though ratings these days are all fractured and flipped by the internet and League Pass. Not to mention this theory makes no sense considering two of the biggest-market teams, the Knicks and the Clippers, have sucked for a long time while one of the smallest-market teams in all major league sports, the San Antonio Spurs, have churned out titles playing basketball that the general public mostly seems to regard as boring.

But it doesn’t stop fans, including myself, from sometimes wondering if there is or if there could be some directive not to call fouls on certain guys or certain teams in specific circumstances. And I don’t think it ever will. Questioning officials is as much a part of the game as eating hot dogs or standing in long bathroom lines. It’s just something you do, I think maybe because being a sports fan represents losing control.

The more devoted you are to a team, the more control you are asked to relinquish. You root for these players and coaches, but you have to trust them to do their jobs while you sit there and audibly urge them to do those jobs. Sometimes it’s frustrating, sometimes it’s gratifying. And when you need to lay blame on someone, it’s usually just easier and cleaner to yell at the refs and blame them than it is to accept or admit that LeBron maybe shouldn’t have gone recklessly charging down the lane last night with the game on the line.

If anyone is in control, or at least has the illusion of being in control, it’s the referees. Fairly or not, the refs receive our blame, bear the brunt of our shame. Blame the refs all you want, but remember that old saying: When you point your finger at someone else, three fingers are pointing back at you.

That goes for the fans as well.

And players and coaches, too.

• I mentioned Joakim earlier, and here’s a link to an online-only thing I wrote about hanging out with him one day two summers ago. I’ve enjoyed seeing Joakim really find his game this season, and it’s been hilarious seeing him bait the Cleveland fans into putting all their ire onto him. He really, honestly doesn’t care what they think about him, and he’s been in enough big-time situations to handle the pressure.

• Many years ago, I stumbled into a casual relationship with a writer named Mike Sager, a man who’s work I’d been reading my entire life, in small regional publications such as Rolling Stone, GQ and Esquire.

Since then Mike has become a dear friend and something of a mentor to me. Last night here in NYC they held the annual National Magazine Awards, and this story Mike wrote about the sad, strange life of Todd Marinovich was named the magazine profile of the year. If you didn’t read it when it came out, you should read it now. And if you are a writer, you could do a lot worse than reading Mike’s tips for writers on his website.

Anyway, just wanted to say congrats to Mike. Always good when a Linkstigator and SLAM subscriber wins big. Drinks are on me tonight. Well, the first round.

• Finally, I loved this story on Danilo Gallinari from an Italian news site, if only because of the clumsy translation. When asked about playing basketball this summer, Gallo (allegedly) says…

“I would like to play but there are some factors to consider: my body and to be ready for the next season with Knicks. I really hope LeBron James (the best player in the League according to Gallinari) will be a Knick.”

Hey, if Gallinari says LeBron is the best, it must be true!

Also, the quote just reads like Gallinari is now conditioned to recruit LeBron in all facets of life. Like if you went to lunch with Gallinari, he’d tell the waiter, “I’ll have the house salad. I really hope LeBron James will be a Knick.”

• That’s it. Fun week in the NBA. I’ll be back on Monday with thoughts and comments from the weekend.

Have a great weekend…