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Why I Worry About Officiating in the NBA

Dave Deckard at takes a hard look at the reaction to NBA officiating typified by the intense first-round series between the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets.

Steve Dykes

Today we're going to talk about a subject which has garnered a fair number of questions over the first four games of the Portland Trail Blazers-Houston Rockets series, including many in my Mailbag inbox: the referees, their relationship to the game, and most importantly of all, our relationship to them.

The officiating in the Blazers-Rockets series has been unsteady.  You can't consult the tape from Game 1 without bumping up against that conclusion.  Refs have missed calls.  Interpretations have changed between games, sometimes between halves within the same game.  You'll get no argument on that point from me.

I would attach two asterisks:

1. The series has been unsteady from every aspect, with sharp turns in quality of play, dozens of surges and lead changes, brilliant exhibitions of basketball and spectacular mistakes.  In the stretches where the teams have played without direction, the officiating has appeared to follow suit.  When one or both teams have played well and taken control of the game, the whistles have confirmed rather than arrested that trend.  At no point have officials clamped down on a team that was streaking.  They've confirmed momentum more than they've created it.

2. The officiating in Portland-Houston hasn't seemed much different than officiating in most other close games around the league.  I was watching Dallas play San Antonio tonight.  As the game closed, moving screens abounded.  None were whistled in those critical moments.  The Spurs screens reminded me of those set by Dwight Howard and Omer Asik (or sometimes by LaMarcus Aldridge, though Blazer fans are loathe to admit it).  No game I've seen has been officiated perfectly, nor strictly in accordance with the letter of the law.  A few of them appeared to be reffed quite poorly.  Even so, I'm struggling to think of a single game where whistles truly decided the outcome.

In other words, even admitting imperfect calls in this series, there's enough wiggle room to allow for integrity, or at least some consistency...even if that consistency comes in mistakes made.

If you want to find an iron-clad, inescapable case of bias confirmed nightly, you have to look at the other side of the equation.  Consider the Portland-Houston series so far:

Game 1: Houston fans allege bias in the first half as Portland attempts 17 free throws to 0 for the Rockets.  They boo the refs off the court.  In the second half Houston shoots 32 free throws (excluding those caused intentionally) to 22 for the Blazers.  Portland fans allege bias.  This is as close as anybody will come to having a verifiable point, as 17 total free throws in the first half versus 54 in the second half and overtime seems like a significant shift in the way the game is being called.

Game 2:  Though the game is close, Portland puts in a definitively good performance and takes it.  Houston fans, once again perceiving bias, chant, "These refs suck!" throughout the game.

Game 3:  Houston puts in a decent performance, perhaps not overwhelming but good enough to win.  Blazer fans boo the refs as supporters and even some media members pepper social media venues with direct accusations about referee Joey Crawford and his potential involvement in fixing games.

Game 4:  Houston takes control of the game early and manages to carry a double-digit lead into the second half.  Portland fans not only repeat Houston's "These refs suck" chant from Game 2, they add a profane coda involving cattle manure.  The Blazers right the ship, coming back in the second half, forcing overtime, and emerging victorious.  During Portland's run criticism of the refs slows, eventually halting as the home team surges ahead.  Meanwhile criticism in Houston picks up correspondingly, including pointed post-game comments about the reffing.

My question:  What kind of world are we living in here?  Can't a team just lose anymore?  This is sports. Theoretically a loss happens every time two teams play each other.  But's impossible that our franchise could drop a quarter, let alone a game, without it being the fault of those stinking refs.  Or that's what message boards and social media outlets would lead you to believe if you were to swallow them whole.

If that's the way the world is now, I don't care for it.  Pursued to its logical conclusion, this phenomenon renders the whole endeavor meaningless.  The only two options are that refs control the outcome of every game (so why even play them?) or the transparent logical fallacy that referees control your team's destiny when they're doing poorly but are a complete non-factor when your team does well.

Frankly, both of these possibilities make me want to chant that same coda that Moda Center attendees were voicing the other night.

If you'll forgive a little personal perspective, it sure feels like this has gotten worse in recent years.  Perhaps it's just access to more venues of communication, making our formerly-private biases into a public reality.  In a continually-connected world our darkest suspicions get aired before, and often confirmed by, like-minded peers we could not reach before.  But even if it's just gathering in bigger groups, that echoed reality does have an effect on our perception of the game.  Tweet by tweet, we're creating a monster that we can't control and that's already becoming all but impossible to slay.

Folks have always complained about referees.  I did my fair share before I watched nearly a bazillion NBA games and realized that all refs suck (and/or don't) almost everywhere on almost every occasion.  But in this new reality we're creating, referee criticism has become more emotional, more convicted, more commonplace, and far more nasty than I remember.  You used to get one guy shouting the ump was blind (obvious exaggeration) while everybody else laughed.  Now you've got six thousand people seriously debating if their team is getting schemed against (to them, a deadly-serious truth) with every perceived bad call.

Naturally we have ready-made excuses for this shift, including a couple repeated commonly in NBA fan circles.

Excuse #1:   "Fans have the right to say whatever they want.  Like you said, we've always complained about refs.  It's nothing new, so let me be a fan!"

This is true on both counts.  But the subtle, and poisonous, difference shows in the conclusions we're reaching because of the exercise of that long-cherished right to complain.

Complaining about and analyzing a particular call, I understand.  That's the part we've "always done".  Sometimes refs blow it.  Other times calls are so close or definitions so nebulous that folks on either side will feel justified indignation.  Sometimes officials see or understand things about the game that we don't and upon further reflection--study or replay--we find they were correct.  Debating particular calls--figuring out which of these things happened--can be enlightening.  Even when it doesn't feel good in the moment (because a ref made a bad call against your team) such discussion is part of the passion and fun of sports.

But we don't spend long discussing specific calls nowadays before leaping to the conclusion that the referees suck, that they're "screwing our team", that the league doesn't want our side to win, and that the good guys have to fight the system and not just the opponent.  Legitimate conversation about a particular call gives way to overblown generalizations that poison passion, encourage defeatism and persecution fantasies, thrive on accusation instead of finding the truth of the matter, and ultimately turn out to be untrue in 99.9% of cases.

Do we have the right to say these things?  Sure.  It's a free country.  But that freedom also forces us to live with the consequences of our words.

I've read plenty over the last couple weeks about the refs "robbing people of their joy".  The refs aren't robbing us of our joy.  WE'RE robbing us of our joy by fixating on them.  WE'RE robbing ourselves of our joy by not being able to accept that sometimes our team plays worse than the opponent having to define anything less than getting what we want as "evil people are plotting and the whole universe is against us."  How can you have real joy if that's the mindset?  Let's say it's true!  Let's say those accusations are exactly right.  You nailed it and everybody is plotting against you.  Are you joyful now?

The thing is, most of those accusations are not right.  First, refs do pretty well on average...better than we do making calls at home or from the stands.  Second, if your team commits a turnover leading to a 2-on-2 run out for the other side and a guy trips in traffic, the referee is justified in calling it either way.  He's human.  He's running full speed when contact is made.  He's still tasked with making that decision, with enforcing his perception, right or wrong.  If your team doesn't like being scrutinized under those difficult, "could-go-either-way" conditions, they can't turn the ball over and give the other team a traffic-filled run-out.  Once they've done that, they're at the mercy of the dribbler and of the refs.  It's the same with offensive rebounds given up or drives in the lane ceded or out-of-position close-outs.  Many fouls are the result of poor positioning or reaction time.  Eliminate those things and mysteriously the whistles start to fade in number and significance.  Play like crap and the fouls tend to go up.  That's life in professional sports.

Yes, bad calls happen.  But they don't usually happen for one side with sufficient frequency to turn a game.  Far more often whistles come when our team is playing poorly, or just not as crisply as the opposition.  It's easier to focus on the refs blowing the whistles than on the slippage that gave the opportunity for those whistles in the first place.  If we're going to lose our joy, at least we should lose it over the right thing.  Our team can probably be fixed.  Referees are beyond our control.

Excuse #2:  "Tim Donaghy and Kings-Lakers and the league has been biased before and if we don't say anything they'll get away with it!"

Let's start at the top.  If we really feel that the league is perpetually biased, what are we doing here?  You should not be watching NBA games nor reading this column.  If they're cheating you, if you know it, and still you continue buying in to their product then crooked refs are not the biggest problem in your life.  So I'm going to assume that if you're still following the NBA as a sporting event, and are still reading this column, you don't really believe that it's crooked.

I do believe the league has shown bias, particularly in the immediate post-Jordan days when ratings desperation flourished and Shaq, Kobe, and the Lakers were seen as the next big hope.  I do not believe that continues in the same way now.  If it did continue, I don't believe a first-round series between the Blazers and Rockets would merit tampering, particularly not in the early games.  The Lakers, Celtics, and Sixers are not in the playoffs this year.  The Bulls will soon be on the sidelines.  I guess the desired matchup would be Clippers-Heat?  L.A. is on the other side of the bracket from Portland; Miami is in a whole 'nother conference.  How would machinations avail?

How would a rigged series between Houston and Portland be more compelling that a series that, by virtue of its tight finishes, is drawing huge accolades already?  These are already being called the greatest playoffs the league has seen in a long while.  That's not because particular teams are winning, but because the basketball is good and the opponents fairly evenly-matched.  Why would the NBA mess with that?

But let's say the assertion is true...that unless we are hyper-vigilant the NBA will begin extending tentacles of evil again, so we must decry every botched call we notice.

How is our case served by focusing on only half of them...the half that go against our team?

How is veracity upheld by justifying every controversial call that favors our side just because it favors our side?

How can we expose the truth when a blown call favoring the opponent is met with, "OH MY LORD, I CANNOT BELIEVE THAT THEY DID THAT!!!" followed by a half-dozen mentions afterwards while a blown call favoring our side only merits, "Well, our team got away with one there.  Let' us never speak of this again..."?

If the league really is biased the remedy would be meticulously detailing every call, pro and con.  That accusation will only stick if our methodology is scientific and rigorous.  Anybody who seriously wants to level that charge should be upset at all the folks making broad generalizations without substantiating research, thereby muddying up the waters.

Defending one's need to complain about officiating with, "The league might be biased so we must watch and discuss..." cannot be followed with the unsupported observation, "...and these refs are out to screw us!"  The second pollutes the first.  Those who hold to the watchdog role must be careful to hold themselves above the same bias they perceive in the watched, else their role is a sham.


I put all this out there knowing full well that people are going to say what they say.  I do not expect change.  I think we could all do with a tad more self-reflection, though, especially before blasting soul-sucking accusations of other people's bias across the entire known world while cloaking our own in the thin veneer of "truth".  I wonder if we understand the environment we're creating when we use "truth" and "passion" interchangeably?  It can be dangerous even when both terms are good.

As criticism becomes more intense, less attached to fact, and gets repeated more often, I worry for the safety of the officials we're railing against.  I've read Tweets--rare, but present--speculating that refs wouldn't be leaving buildings or cities safely that night.

In the old days you always had to worry about the lone crackpot who'd take things too far.  Now those crackpots are linked and have the ear of thousands of others...who themselves are more used to thinking in concert than was once the norm.   With emotions more exposed, communicated faster, accepted and joined easier, it feels like we're rolling the dice with every "Refs Suck" chant.  The percentages of any given incident happening are admittedly small, but chants are starting to materialize at more games and with more energy.  Do we now have to worry about yesterday's single crackpot becoming today's mob, about seemingly-justified chants turning into easily-rationalized action?

I'm no expert in large-group dynamics, but I've been around almost every imaginable scenario in groups of 150 or less.  I can tell you for a fact that some of the comments I've read about referees sound like shocking comments I've heard from fired-up people on hot-button issues.  Not a one of these heated people were crazy or emotional or out of line coming into the room.  But in that environment, given the right spark, upstanding people do and say shockingly rotten, hateful, hurtful things.  Upon reflection they might regret them.  But when injustice is perceived and comments fly, regret and sense don't factor in until much later, if at all.

The environment we're creating doesn't scare me outright, but we're headed in that direction.  And even now, at times I wonder.  I'm not nervous for myself as much as for our sport--or sports in general--up to and including the people who officiate it.  There's a difference between investing your heart into a team you love and indulging the urge to rip out someone else's heart when things don't go your way.  That difference is becoming less clear in our words.  I hope our actions never follow.

Though I don't expect any great change on this issue at large, I do hope to provoke change in one, specific venue...if I may speak to my media colleagues for a moment.

It's one thing when fans engage in this kind of passionate outburst.  Accurate or misguided (and there are some of each) it still falls under the umbrella of "fanatic".  When those who serve in the media engage in same, it's taken to a new level.

Media members have access to a privilege that others do not.  They're a central voice in the community, a voice potentially connected to all the others and thus more capable of shaping community discussion.  If Fred speaks to Joe, one person hears.  If Fred speaks into a microphone on TV or radio, the whole group hears.  Even if Microphone Fred doesn't intend it, he becomes a leader by default.

This tendency is heightened by our assumption that those hired for media or broadcasting positions are experts in their field, else why do they get the mic?  Whether we agree or disagree with them, they direct the conversation, define its ground, influence our perceptions.

I do not find it shocking anymore when a random person on Twitter puts forth an unsubstantiated accusation that referees are biased and are costing the Blazers the game.  I find it shocking, and to be honest near-repugnant, to read the same from established members of the media or broadcast team who are assumed to have a privileged level of access, knowledge, and analysis...and thus to be bearers of "truth".

I understand that such comments are not meant poorly.  I understand the modern media desire to touch the popular culture from within, be perceived as "just folks", to go viral.  But desiring to seem like one of the people does not mean that your words are taken as if you were just one of the people.  It's not fair to toss aside your position and speak as if you were a normal Joe at one moment, then expect everyone to regard you as a learned authority at another moment, while covering the exact same topic for the exact same crowd in the exact same context.

I have no objection to a media member calling out officials for bias if that accusation is backed up with a carefully-documented piece detailing specific infractions put in proper context.   I shudder when I see a media member making unsubstantiated accusations, particularly on social media, particularly going along with the rush of the crowd.   If you've got something to say, say it in your medium of choice, prove it, and let us all discuss fairly.  If you can't do that--if you haven't put in the work and care and balance to use that voice of authority properly--don't say it.

Unless the argument is carefully substantiated, a supposedly-learned media or broadcast member making an accusation about the refs doesn't add a single thing to the conversation.  You have special access, you're paid to analyze, you're credited with amazing intellect and an ability to see the game beyond the rest of us.  Is this the best you could come up with...something every hack on the block is already alleging?  Is it true, or is it mostly a throw-away statement designed to play on our passion?  A brightly burning fire in the fireplace is one thing.  Coming along with a leaf-blower and blasting it into the flames is another.

The fire is burning brightly.  You don't have to dig very deep to see that in Houston or in Portland right now.  Hey Media Guy...Broadcast are you going to feel when among the thousands of people on your Twitter follow list--or among the tens of thousands listening as you speak into that microphone--you find a person who isn't able to make the distinction between you feeding on passion and your presumed duty to convey truth?  How are you going to feel when that same guy knocks on the referee's hotel room door tonight...the "crooked" ref you just mentioned in your Tweet?  How are you going to feel when--following the 962,331st time this season you've claimed the team is getting jobbed--that small portion of the chanting, playoff-crucible crowd finally has enough and jumps the barrier, storming the court?

I'm not saying your comment would cause this directly.  It won't.   But in the aftermath, when that Tweet is hanging out there for the world to see or your broadcast words are re-playing on news channels over footage of the arena incident, will that make a difference?  How would you feel?

How would any of us feel?  Maybe we should think about that a little more as we express ourselves on these matters.  We may not be professional broadcasters, but what we say publicly gets disseminated farther than was imaginable 10 years ago.  What are we creating with those words, for ourselves, for others, and for the enjoyment of the game?

The refs do suck sometimes.  So does our team.  So do the other guys.  That's sports.  It's a great world to lose yourself in for a while.  It's a horrible world to get lost in, though.  Life is supposed to be black and white for the couple hours the game is on, good and bad well-defined, winners and losers clear.  That's why we love it.   If at times black and white fade annoyingly into shades of referee gray...well, imperfection is part of being human.  If we can't live with that, we can't live with sports or each other either.

--Dave (