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The NBA’s officiating problem: Misguided attempts to fix it and emerging new solutions

Lingering questions about the persistent mistakes in NBA officiating and the league’s misguided attempts to address them threaten to compromise the integrity of the game. It’s up to Adam Silver to overhaul the system.

President Obama Speaks At The U.S.-Africa Business Forum In New York Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Blatant missed calls by referees favoring the Cavs in the Christmas Day Debacle, Warriors forward Kevin Durant’s acrid comments about the Last Two Minute Report (L2M), a subsequent statement by NBA referees in reaction to Durant’s statement, and the $15,000 fine slapped on Pacers star Paul George (and the $10,000 penalty dropped on Coach Nate McMillan) all point to one thing: a complete and total overhaul of the NBA officiating system is needed.

On Tuesday following the Christmas Day game, Warriors forward Kevin Durant came out with a blistering statement condemning the L2M for “throw[ing] the refs under the bus.” He stated that complaints against referees in one game lead to an over-correction and tight calling in the next. Although this may be true, the problematic officiating is not a game-to-game issue, but a broader one that mandates changes to the entire officiating system — and the referees agreed.

On Wednesday, the NBA Referees, via the Official NBA Refs Twitter account, issued a statement of agreement with Durant — that the L2M “unfairly targets” them. But they went a step further by calling for reform:

NBA referees respond

The reforms the referees would like to see probably differ significantly from those the fans would like to have implemented. Still, it is great that the refs know this isn’t an issue that can be shrugged off, as Durant suggests. Yes, Durant and his teammates have to move on to the next game; it would be unwise for players to get so hung up on fouls called or not called in a previous game that they are ineffective in preparing for the next contest in front of them. But the officiating system is broken, it needs to be reformed, and this cannot be ignored.

However, on Thursday, The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski published a video essay called “The NBA’s war with the officials over transparency of calls.” In it, he slammed the L2M, stating, “The public flogging of officials is a mistake.”

Yet on the same day that Wojnarowski declared the public flogging of officials a mistake, the NBA handed down fines to Indiana Pacers star Paul George and Coach Nate McMillan for statements they made about the uneven foul calling in a recent loss to the Chicago Bulls. But George’s comments moved beyond the typical grumbling of coaches and players. He accused the league of collusion, stating: “It comes down from somewhere else how these games are going, I believe.”

Why the conspiracy theories persist

Although this may be a bold statement by a player, it is a sentiment many fans have uttered in response to bad officiating over the years. The mess with disgraced ref Tom Donoghy only verified suspicions; ongoing issues prevent the skepticism from dying out. Thus, the swirl of conspiracy theories continues.

Paul George isn’t an idiot. He knows the rules and he has been fined before for speaking out on the NBA’s officiating. The same can be said for Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, who was fined $25,000 in November for comments he made on a KNBR 680 radio show following a game against the Raptors.

Kerr stated:

“How is it that everybody on earth can see these traveling violations except for the three people that we pay to do the job? I don’t get it. It’s bizarre. ... But I can literally put together a blooper reel of plays that are embarrassing travels that are just not called.”

And he also said:

“It’s a shame. Guys are getting away with murder out there. And fans see it. My favorite is when you see the visiting team travel and you see like 1,000 fans in the background all doing the traveling signal with their hands. If those people saw it, how come the refs didn’t?”

Many may consider Kerr’s questions to be rhetorical, but they actually should be viewed as literal: 1) Why is it that everybody on the planet can see various violations but the referees cannot? 2) Why is it that 1,000 fans can see a violation from the stands but refs can’t see it from the floor?

Obviously, if fans in the stands, players on the floor, and players and coaches on the bench can see the violations, the refs can, too — which, then, forces us to ask why they are not blowing their whistles, which, then, reinforces the idea that officiating in the NBA is corrupt.

For millionaire players and coaches in the NBA, $10,000, $15,000 or $25,000 may not be a lot of money relative to what they bring in in salary and endorsements, but it is still a lot of money. Considering that Kerr has revealed himself to be a very thoughtful individual — earning himself the nickname “Sensei Kerr” — he likely values that sum of money and would prefer to spend it in a better way than paying fines to the NBA. But he obviously cares deeply about the integrity of the game. Therefore, his willingness to be fined — as well as the willingness of Paul George and Nate McMillan to be fined — illustrates the gravity of the problem. Surely, the league does not want to return to the days of an owner giving strong consideration to selling his team out of frustration over bad officiating.

“I honestly felt it was an opinion,” George stated of the $15,000 fine. “Everything I said I would not take back. It was an opinion. And I got whacked for it.”

He is correct. It was “an opinion” and one that many people seem to share.

Adam Silver’s response to the problem

Wojnarowski, Durant and others are correct. The L2M, at worst, publicly shames referees who may be doing the best job they can — or, who potentially are executing orders coming from above, as George insinuated in his comments. At best, the L2M provides opportunities for further training of the officials. Thus, if the best that can come from the report is that it be used as a training tool, there is no reason to publicly flog the referees by making the report public.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has done a stellar job of growing the league since grabbing the reins from David Stern in 2006. During his tenure, Silver has given attention to issues related to:

  • player health, by improving the protocol for dealing with concussions (the players do still play 82 games per season, though, and are subjected to insane travel demands);
  • racism, by forcing former Clippers owner Donald Sterling out of the league; and
  • social issues, by moving the 2017 NBA All-Star Game from Charlotte in protest over North Carolina’s HB2 law and airing PSAs calling for reform to gun laws.

By all accounts, Silver has shown himself to be a forward-thinking leader unafraid to take swift action to improve the culture of the league. But he has come up short in assessing just how big the officiating issue is. Moreover, he is demonstrating myopic devotion to L2M.

In June, the referees’ union called for an end to the L2M, but Silver stuck by it, telling ESPN’s Sage Steele: “You can't turn back the clock on transparency. People expect accountability.”

Yes, Mr. Silver, people do expect transparency and accountability. The L2M just isn’t the way to achieve these goals. It is not working as intended.

Silver also stated:

“Of course it doesn’t change the outcome of a game that was already played, but accountability on behalf of the league office is critical, just as it is with all league and businesses. And more importantly, that fans have a right to know that the games are being called consistently.”

Well, at this point, fans can see that the games are not being called consistently – not by a long shot. Just review the non-call on LeBron James for hanging on the rim on Christmas Day and the call on Draymond Green for supposedly hanging on the rim a week or so prior as one of many examples. And, if it doesn’t change the outcome of the game (or the technical foul totals for players), what’s the point?

Finally, Silver stated: “But I can’t imagine in this day and age that in response to fans wondering what the league’s view is of a call, we wouldn’t respond.”

Of course the league should respond — no one is disputing that. But the fans (players and coaches) knowing the league’s view on calls in the last two minutes of a game does not change anything about the outcome of that game or how future games will be called; it does not provide corrective measures for the mistakes. This is what fans want to see: reform, to improve consistency of calling in-game and to correct egregious errors consistently after the fact. (And this says nothing of the fact that the first 46 minutes of a game are not immune to officiating errors and need to be included in any corrective or preventative measures.)

What is to be done?

The good news is that some changes are in the works. The league supposedly has improved its hiring practices of officials and, under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, players will soon have a hotline to call where they can report officiating issues. While these are steps in the right direction, they are not big enough or wide enough.

First, vestiges of the David Stern era need to go. Instead of reforming the officiating system, especially in the wake of cheating scandals, Stern silenced the messengers — slapped exorbitant fines on players and coaches who criticized referees publicly. In 2016, with the advanced social media platforms that did not exist 10 years ago, this is just silly — or cruel. If the players and coaches choose to stay silent to keep their dough, the fans and media will continue to speak up on their behalf.

Next, Silver’s attempt at transparency — the now-infamous L2M — ultimately has caused more problems than it has solved. It amounts to hanging pictures on the walls of a house that needs to be razed and rebuilt. The entire officiating system needs to be revamped. And, with the technology and big money at the league’s disposal, there is no reason fans, players and coaches should not expect — no, demand — much better.

Only this will put an end to the whispers and shouts about the league being corrupt.

Only this will assure fans that the NBA chooses fair play over profit.

Follow Tamryn Spruill on Twitter

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