On February 22, the Portland Trail Blazers lost a basketball game played against opposing human elements. One of those elements goes by the cuddly serpentine moniker “mamba.” Yet, following the game, the attention of Blazers fans has focused not upon that singular player or his mates, but upon whether or not there were additional snakes in the Staples Center grass that evening: serpents dressed not in daisy and barney, but in the actual hues of dendroaspis polylepis—grey and black.
Did NBA referees effectively join league with the Lakers and play the Blazers eight-on-five? I don’t know. And, unless you’re inside the NBA zoo, then you don’t know either. At most, conspiracy theorists have suspicions, a very large pile of evidence, and a very small market court of public opinion. Without a system that allows that evidence to be transparently assessed and married to fair consequences for the potential perpetrators, we have—effectively—an adult-sized tantrum.
But even if we can’t know about—much less affect—the zoo, we know about—because we affect—the habitats of snakes. How do fans influence the degree of fairness of referees? Quite simply, if simply illogically. First, we perpetuate the patently false idea that referee actions are ultimately irrelevant to the outcome of the game. Despite the fact that 13 people populate an NBA court at all times during a game—each one holding the ball, influencing points, and directing play—we only hold 10 of those persons accountable for the end result. We argue that players win or lose games, while the persons responsible for the fairness of play are not, somehow, also accountable. Secondly, and more importantly, we confess our absolution of the refs with an air of sports holiness. It is not only that “blaming the refs” (i.e. “holding the refs accountable for their impact upon the game”) is untrue, it is lazy, immature, and whiny. Real sports fans don’t blame the refs. Real sports fans blame the players on the court, the absence of players not on the court, the coaches, the gm, and the gods, that is, all physical and metaphysical entities not named “ref.” A real sports fan’s team constantly needs to be able to enact time machine countermeasures, counteracting an irrelevant -25 free throw disparity by going back in time and getting that one relevant rebound. Until the reality of the time machine countermeasure, this is the reality of NBA fan virtue: it’s always the one rebound and never the -25 free throw disparity.
In sum, according to what I will call the “real sports fan principle of strange justice,” the actions of NBA referees both (1) don’t impact the final outcome of the game and (2) directly impact fan virtue to the degree that the fan confesses the referees’ impact as innocuous.
I find this principle curious, not least because I think referees impact the outcome of games. More to the point, I find the principle harmful to the game, because, well, our stalwart dedication to “not blame the refs” gives license to referees to commit all manner of blameworthy acts. Because we affirm that referees can do no ultimate harm, referees can do harm that we cannot blame. By refusing to blame the refs we gain fan virtue, while at the same time authorizing the refs to commit vice. The principle of strange justice grows grass inviting to snakes.
Because I find the principle of strange justice curious and harmful, I am interested in why NBA fans propagate it. Why would we continually espouse an idea that is both false and destructive? Here are a few steps mounting towards a theory…
1. Whether through accident or intention, NBA referees impact the outcome of games. We know this. We know that part 1 of the principle is blatantly false. So why do we gloss the truth and pretend that referees don’t impact the outcome of games? Because part 1 of the principle is actually a result of part 2, not the other way around. That is, because we don’t want to blame the refs, seem like whiners, and lose our fan dignity, we minimize—and eventually negate—the impact of referees as a way to protect ourselves. The principle appears to protect us; it does not protect the game; but ultimately the principle protects the refs from accountability. Do NBA referees need protection?
2. Of course not, because NBA refs are already insulated by the league itself, as cozily as boa constrictors wrapped in a chicken coop. Who can legitimately question, much less publicly challenge, the actions of NBA referees? Not owners, not coaches, not players, not the media, and not fans, at least not without fines, technical fouls, empty microphones, and piles of unreturned mail. Only the league office, through hidden and incredibly tame processes, can hold NBA refs accountable. Since this is the case, then the NBA may very well hold its referees to standards and expectations that are not in the best interests of each particular franchise on any given night. This insulation allows the NBA to, theoretically, determine its own aims for NBA refs—including eating an occasional chicken for the good of the balance between snakes and the coop.
3. The point is that NBA fans know this as well: that we are powerless to hold referees accountable, even if we wanted to do so. This is the tacit, third element to the principle of strange justice: (1) NBA refs don’t impact the game; (2) NBA refs do impact fan virtue when we absolve them; (3) NBA fans can’t do anything but absolve refs, since we feel powerless to hold them accountable. In fact, this hidden element is the real driver, motivating the whole series of fan statements that end with “I don’t blame the refs…”
There is a philosophical term that captures the psychology at work in the principle of strange justice: ressentiment. Among other thinkers, Nietzsche used ressentiment to describe the way that weak classes and religions try to turn their impotence in the face of suffering on its head. According to Nietzsche, Christians, for instance, rather than face their suffering through action in history, transform their suffering into a holy thing—and even a path to eternal life. To be clear, I am neither endorsing Nietzsche’s particular critique nor saying that the frustration of NBA fans even approximates the actual suffering of oppressed classes of people. I am simply arguing that the psychological coping mechanism of NBA fans runs parallel with a Nietzschean observation. The principle of strange justice is a silly, relatively benign echo of ressentiment. Since we are powerless to hold referees accountable, we turn “not blaming the refs” into a choice that we actually never have, and even make our confession a key part of being a real sports fan.
So what? Even if this overwrought analysis of the dynamic between fans and refs is true, what can be done to alter the strange relationship? Well, NBA fans could devise creative practices that lead toward referee accountability. The problem is that even considering such practices will be embarrassing for fans, as we will have to break through a boundary of coolness, confess that we care about basketball more than is probably healthy, and start advocating for rather strange interventions rather than strange justice. I confess that I’m not really all that interested in such actions, myself, although I would be fascinated to read some ideas. A second strategy is much simpler, and I end this essay by strongly endorsing it: cease our confession of the principle of strange justice. “Not blaming the refs” is not virtuous; it’s harmful acquiescence. It potentially yields the court to the 3 persons whom we least desire to affect the outcome of the game. It tries to transform our relative powerlessness into pride. It is a lie.
One snake on the court is enough. NBA referees do not self-identify as serpents. Refs present themselves as the persons foremost responsible for maintaining the fairness of the game. Surely many of them live into this purpose admirably. That some of them move in a more slippery direction is probably all too human; we need not help such impulses by growing a habitat of irresponsibility.