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3 Problematic Things Facing the NBA: The Referee Learning Curve

People always complain about refs. Can this generation of officials work beyond it?

Boston Celtics v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The NBA is the second most successful sports league in the United States and a globally-recognized brand. Nightly during the season, professional athletes dazzle with feats of brilliance that, more often than not, take fans out of their seats and keep observers analyzing through the next morning.

That doesn’t mean the league is perfect, though. No matter what the scoreboards read after a given day, fans, analysts, former players, and media members will find axes to grind. Some observations are well-reasoned, others shot from the hip, but rain or shine, there’s always going to be something to complain about.

If you find yourself somewhat dissatisfied with the current NBA, we might have some bad news for you. Today we’re running a series describing ongoing issues the league will have to deal with...or not, as the case may be.

Our first post in the series covered the flow of easy offense that has overtaken the league this season. Our second covered the potential rise of Super Agencies and the implications for league balance. In this third and final post, we cover a topic guaranteed to rile up 98% of the NBA audience at one time or another: officiating.

Complaints Get Louder

Officiating is going to generate complaints in every era, from every fan base. When you start from the bias of, “Everything that advantages my side is right,” neutrality seems far off of square. That presumes that referees can remain neutral in judgment and perfect in execution in the first place, which never happens.

Even admitting that, we’re seeing an evolution, perhaps degradation, of officiating in the NBA.

On balance, refs still get most of the calls right. Eye tests and anecdotal evidence are perilous guides—and this is completely subjective—but increasingly, they appear to be missing obvious calls. Once upon a time we argued about obscure rule interpretations. Now radio airwaves and blogs are alive with debates—and occasional swearing—over plays that seemed self-evident just a few years ago.

This would be nothing but empty complaining that comes with every generation, except that this time, I suspect it’s not going to get better. The league has changed dramatically, and that may end up changing officiating for good.

Offensive Rules

Remember in the bad old days when everyone was convinced the league was biased towards the Los Angeles Lakers...and they kinda were? At no point did favoritism express itself through secret meetings in which referees were instructed to blow whistles for Shaquille O’Neal against his helpless foes. That would have been illegal and, ultimately, nearly impossible to conceal.

Bias happens in a more subtle way, by feedback that creates easier or harder paths of resistance.

Let’s say you have a 50-50 call between Shaq and Center Stiff A. Everyone perceives O’Neal as a dominant star. Nobody knows or cares about the other center.

If you call Shaq for that 50-50 foul, it’s going to be replayed, commentators will question, the arena will roar, and you’re going to get asked questions after the game, by casual observers, reporters, and perhaps by superiors as well. Conversely, if you whistle the foul against Center Stiff A, Shaq goes to the line and that’s it.

Under these conditions, are you really going to make that 50-50 call with a true 50% division? No human being could. The questioning you get for making it one way (and the corresponding ease of calling it the other way) will redefine “correct” and “incorrect”, first environmentally, then in your own decision-making process.

Star-power calls still exist today, but that’s an old story. A newer one: NBA rules and interpretations thereof are biased towards offensive players. It’s not as dramatic as the star system was. There’s no obvious negative feedback for calling a foul against a potential scorer. It just seems like if you blow the whistle on a defending player nowadays, you’re never wrong.

This is eye-test stuff, but anticipated fouls on defenders and fouls whistled ex post facto, after a shot misses, appear more commonplace. If true, it isn’t because refs are suddenly bad or blind. It’s because those fouls are the downhill-running water in the NBA ecosystem. Shots are expected to fall. If they don’t, there’s a reason.

Video Review

Adoption of video review has also changed the way games are called. Thank goodness the NBA is past the stage where officials struggled to use the system efficiently. Who could forget the sight of referees huddled over monitors for five minutes, trying to decide whether the ball was near the line or on it? But that same familiar efficiency creates issues of its own.

Remember the TV series “House”, or those old medical dramas that seemed to be network staples between the 1960’s and 1990’s? Brilliant doctors would play detective with patients, using skill and insight to save their charges from disaster.

Obviously medicine never worked like that entirely. But once upon a time there was more individuality to it.

Real-life doctors today are just as brilliant, incredibly well-trained, and have access to techniques their predecessors—even the idealized television versions—could only dream of. But if you go see your General Practitioner, you’re not going to find much “House” work going on. A couple of outside influences—insurance and malpractice suits—have altered the way we look at medicine, and thus how it’s practiced. (Mandatory caveat: That statement isn’t mean as a negative jab at either. Both are necessary in their own ways.)

Medical work—at least on the common level—is now a matter of odds and percentages as much as individual brilliance or detective-like insight. Given symptoms X, Y, and Z, what’s the most likely cause? That’s the treatment insurance is going to green light.

As I understand it (and all of these perceptions come second-hand, as I’m not a physician myself) doctors still have autonomy and power. They can buck the trend at need. But they’re going to need to explain why they’re deviating, often to physicians employed by the insurance companies themselves. They’re also going to have to justify going against the odds if something goes wrong and they didn’t take the most obvious option first.

For better or worse, treatment has become more standardized, almost mechanized, shaped by the system in which doctors and patients function as much as the relationship between the two parties themselves.

The introduction of video review has the potential to affect officials the same way the introduction of insurance and attorneys affects physicians. The tools meant to aid the process and protect against wrongdoing also shape the process and redefine right and wrong.

I worry sometimes. Are referees still making the call they see on the court, training themselves to perceive, analyze, and act decisively? Or are officials beginning to make the call that’s going to look good on tape by percentage, to defer judgment, to lean on the review? Are we seeing more obviously missed calls because the refs aren’t seeing the court in the same way? Are we seeing the definition of “good call” change before our eyes?

Will it be harder, over time, to draw a charge than get called for a block, not just because of the aforementioned offensive bias, but because the basis of a charge is stillness, while the block is movement, and it’s far easier to see movement on video than established position? Will refs be able to make accurate goaltending calls—or other infractions that require split-second perception of time and distance—without having to review them?

Learning Curve

We’ve all seen calls so egregious and consequential that they turn the course of a game, even a season. Those are incredibly rare. 99.95% of officiating lies in the substrata, and is open to interpretation. Falling on one side or another of those calls is less important than learning to make them well, with consistency, in the context of the sport. That’s what learning to call the game is all about.

With an electronic eye looking over the shoulder and at least some presumption of league bias baked into the rules, how will officials develop that instinctive sense of trust in themselves, their vision and authority, that makes them great? If they aren’t able to risk getting it wrong for fear of having to get it right all the time, they’ll not be able to learn and evolve.

At that point we end up jeopardizing the integrity of 9995 calls to save 5. And it doesn’t work anyway. Ask a Cleveland Cavaliers fan about Joel Embiid’s sixth foul last night for a lecture on that one.

I’m not arguing against instant replay. It can be a useful tool. But I hope the league isn’t just looking at percentages of calls made “right” in an instant. They also need to look at development of officiating habits—both systemically and individual skill—over the course of careers.

There will be good and bad calls, good and bad refs, in every generation. The pipeline, and how officials grow through it, provides insulation against the negative consequences. And it does it in a way that no artificial system can duplicate.

Institutional Memory

There’s a reason these issues take on critical importance right now. Both instant replay and offensive-gratification rules started in the early 2000’s. In the past two decades, the league has cycled through a full generation of referees. Every referee currently employed has spent most, or all, of their career under these systems. Officials with outside perspective—with an institutional memory that includes quick, decisive, correct, and strictly-enforced calls—have all but disappeared. In another ten years, they’ll be gone entirely.

This generation of referees seems to have more ability to collaborate, consult, and let the game speak for itself than many previous generations did. Those are all positive traits. Fluidity, instinctive accuracy, and connection to the action on the floor—as opposed to the abstract process and video validation—seem to be missing.

It’s not that the old way is better. I wish some of those old-school, “I’m always right” refs had bigger doses of conversation and video tape when they ruled the game. But truthfully, referees need both aspects, and one of them is on the verge of going extinct.

Belonging to a system and being double-checked against same is great. If referees become dependent on both—not because of inherent talent but because those are the primary, or only, alternatives—their ability to operate outside them will become suspect. There’s a big difference between seeing a potential call, evaluating, making it, and standing up to the consequences every time and asking whether the call fits the program, double-checking, and getting shuffled towards complying if it doesn’t. Technically speaking, referees will “learn” either way, but if the second becomes too predominant, they’ll learn to become whistle stations instead of growing into the skill set and judgment we’ve always associated with good officials.

Making bad calls because of mistakes or incompetence is one thing. That can be trained or weeded out. Making bad calls because the system doesn’t encourage people to see, interpret,, or advocate for the good ones is a much harder problem to fix.