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Fire the Refs! (Or, well...not.)

Yesterday the incomparable TrueHoop found this article at on the impending lockout of NBA officials.  It's an interesting read, one that's highly critical of the refs.  The thread throughout echoes whispers floating across NBA Nation:  Could David Stern play Ronald Reagan to the referees' air traffic controllers and just axe the whole lot, starting from scratch?  The author hints this might not be a bad thing.

As anyone who's read here for more than two minutes knows, I tend to leave the refs alone.  It's nearly impossible to discuss them meaningfully when every fan base in existence claims they're at fault for any half-significant loss.  It robs you of the evaluative words you need to employ.  Yes, there are situations in which officiating makes a difference but those don't happen as often as advertised.

On the other hand you won't find me apologizing for the refs much either.  They're far from perfect.  The game is so fluid and quick that it's hard to define infractions, let alone react to them.  Most often it comes down to a judgment call.  Judgment calls invariably fall prey to any number of human weaknesses ranging from misapprehension to corruption.  The league has witnessed plenty of incidents on both ends of that scale and everywhere in between.  It's to the point now that the only criteria by which the layman has a fair chance to judge are the tendencies of the refs themselves.  We can't argue convincingly what's a foul and what's not in most situations.  All we can do is point out when that wasn't a foul a minute, night, or week ago but it's being whistled now.  That's an unfortunate situation as there's little or no hope of evaluating the system by objective, commonly-held standards.  You can only evaluate the system by its own implied values which are mostly unclear and undoubtedly self-serving. 

Despite that I have several problems with the article in question and with the idea of recycling the entire cadre of referees.

One of the main arguments for viewing the current crop of refs with suspicion is the Tim Donaghy scandal.  There hasn't been a more foundation-shaking development in the league since the recreational drug epidemic a couple of decades ago.  You can't blame people for making free with the tar brush given that kind of stimulus.  But the question here isn't how to exact revenge for corruption past.  The question is how to solve the problem if one still exists.  Would hiring an entirely new crop of officials lessen the chances of corruption occurring?

I suppose if you could prove that every single ref in the system now is connected with the gambling underworld you could make a case.  But if that were verifiable the axe would already be falling.  In reality it doesn't make sense that these problems would venture beyond a select few.  The logistical problems of controlling the entire referee corps would be a nightmare.  Besides, murder will out, as they say.  At some point the accusations would have spread further if Donaghy's sin were common to the whole.  Somebody would be blowing the whistle in the other direction and they'd have a ton of evidence to back it up.

Falling short of being able to show the whole system is corrupt, we're forced to use common sense as our measuring stick.  Whose corruption would be easier to engineer, that of experienced officials who have been vetted, traced, and evaluated on a consistent basis or that of a large group of untested newcomers on whom you have little or no data?  Were I trying to get my hooks into NBA officials I'd pray for the whole system to be flushed.  I know the 60 or so referees they're going to have to turn to next.  All I need are a couple of pliable candidates and I've got Donaghy all over again, probably multiplied.  How are they going to figure it out?  They don't know these officials or their patterns.  These officials don't know the NBA game.  If they ever get raked over the coals they can either say, "That's just the way I call games" or "Hey, I'm new at this!"  It's going to take years for them to build enough evidence to attribute shady calls to anything but those two reasons.  And it's not like they can draw on a huge pool of replacements even should they suspect.  Having already relegated themselves to using the B Team the league isn't going to be eager to see what the C Squad looks like.

The article also bemoans the infamous star system, laying it at the feet of the refs.  Are we ready to believe that the officials instituted those practices without the implicit or complicit cooperation of the league?  They all had a meeting one day and randomly decided to start protecting stars and the NBA just hasn't gotten around to noticing yet?  If the league has a beef with the star system it need look no further than the nearest mirror.  It evaluates its officials after every game.  If the league started cracking down on Jordan calls and Bird calls and Howard and James calls they'd be taken care of.  Heck, all it would take is David Stern standing at a podium demanding that the refs call a foul as a foul no matter who it is on.  "We don't like this.  It's ruining the game and our credibility.  We're going to demand that our officials be accountable in this area and we will make sure our superstars have to conform to the same rules as everybody else."  You're never going to hear those words because the league sees the star system as beneficial to fan enjoyment, TV ratings, and jersey sales.  You can recycle as many refs as you want.  Until you address the problem at the source it won't matter one bit.

Besides, if LeBron James publicly pitches a fit with Steve Javie and Javie tosses him the league has little choice but to support the ref.  They can put pressure on him, but Javie's not going anywhere.  If LeBron James gets tossed by Shecky Gruberman straight off the boat from the Outer Mongolian B-League, who is everyone going to side with up to and including the league office?  They don't have a leg to stand on.  At that point everybody and their uncle will be crying to have the old refs back.

And that's the final point.  The calls are the calls.  They're quite difficult.  Some are made, some are missed.  Those same calls are going to have to be adjudicated no matter what batch of referees you put on the floor.  Does anybody think that a herd of rookie refs are going to be able to handle those calls better on a nightly basis than the refs we already have, even with the imperfections in the latter group?  It would be a nightmare...a nightly circus of the absurd.  ESPN could make an entire SportsCenter out of botched calls.  The refs would become the story more than the play.  And who is going to teach these neophytes, helping them to overcome their pratfalls?  With every experienced ref gone they're left to learn on their own.  Again you're looking at a process of years before they can evolve into seasoned hands and with no map in front of them it's pretty much guaranteed they'll hit every roadblock and dead end along the way.  You'd sentence a generation of fans and players to absurdity without any guarantee that you'd come out in a better place at the end of it all.  Since we've brought up gambling, anybody want to set the odds on fans ever ceasing to complain about the officials no matter who wears the uniforms?

The article in question ends with this little gem of reasoning:

Of course, there's no way to be sure that a new crop of game officials will perform any better than the current one. But they wouldn't be worse.

As many flaws as the current system and those who inhabit it have, I think we all could envision it being worse.  I've just spelled out a few means by which that could happen.  The question at hand isn't how to avoid getting worse.  The refs we have can manage that.  The question is how to get better.  And this solution doesn't do it.  It's a disaster waiting to happen and no amount of emotion, angst, or dreamed retribution can disguise that.

--Dave (