I want to bring up two things that Bill Simmons talked about today. Both are relating to officiating, one is structural and the other is more analytical. He points out (like we needed someone to) how dreadful the officiating has gotten, and cites several problems such as the age of the officials, the state of the game as a 1 on 1 thing, and the desire by the NBA to curb on-court violence leading to a crack-down that limits hard play. I have no answers for how to fix the officiating but one very simple thing that could address a lot of issues and doesn't seem to be too drastic.
In baseball, you have a crew of umpires. This crew is headed by one ump called "the crew chief" but in reality, they are all equally important. As they travel from stadium to stadium, they rotate counter-clockwise from base to base. So the crew chief isn't always behind home-plate, in fact, he's behind home plate as often as the other three umps.
In football, you also have crews, headed this time by the head referee. Football officials are the most specialized as any sports. They have two line judges standing on the sidelines marking balls and calling pre-snap penalties and penalties on the edge. You have a back judge to police things that happen beyond the secondary and already back to keep up with the speed of the faster players. You have an umpire standing LITERALLY in the middle of the action policing anything that might happen near the ball. Everyone knows their role. Guys generally don't have to make a call that they're not in position to make because there is a system set up to make sure there is always someone in position.
However in basketball, there are no crews. I mean, there are game-to-game, but after the officials ref a game, they get in separate cabs, fly to a different city, and join up with a new set of two officials to ref another game. There is SOME specialization, but when there is, it comes from a short pre-game discussion amongst the three refs. So if Danny Crawford is reffing a game with Zac Zarba and Bennet Salvadore one night, he might be assigned with Monty McCutcheon and Joey Crawford another night, while Zarba is in another city reffing with Violet Palmer and Dick Bavetta.
Now, Simmons talks about the chemistry acquired after playing years of pick-up ball with the same guys. I could not agree any more. If Matt Neff flew out to L.A. today, we could hang with any group in a two-on-two game. We've been playing together for 15 years. He's Malone, I'm Stockton. It's not even fair. But the reason isn't because we're so talented. And I don't necessarily think we have a form of ESP or anything. The point is, he and I know each others strengths and we know each others weaknesses. I know how he dominates in the post, he knows how effective I am in a screen and roll. He knows I like to D up on the ball, I know that if the ball hits the rim he's got the bound. I don't worry about rebounding, he doesn't worry about perimeter defense, both of which are weaknesses for each other. This is how basketball works.
So tell me, why can't this work for officiating? If I know that a certain official loves to officiate in the paint, and has been doing it long enough that he can seek things I can't see, I won't make a call from half-court when he's already on the baseline. If he knows I can run, and he's slower, wouldn't it make sense to let me work the sidelines and play in transition while he stands closer to mid-court and doesn't need to run as far in between plays. Wouldn't there be more trust amongst the officials to let no-calls be no-calls. You can specialize like in football, you can trust each other, and you can rely on chemistry the same way that my friend and I do in two-on-two.
Furthermore, there's a lot less alpha-dog posturing when you guys are all co-workers. Think about playing pick-up ball with nine strangers. You want to be the man for your team. You might feign alpha-dog mentality simply to impress your teammates, or to position yourself as the leader. This happens in officiating ALL the time. Take D-White's tech the other day. It obviously was a dumb call, but the official who made it was showing off for his crew. He was saying "Oh really D-White, well watch what I can do!" That call NEVER gets made if they crew was together all year. You let that slide, you let a lot of fouls inside slide if the guy on the baseline is your partner, and your season-long friend. The games would be officiated right.
What's baffling is how easy a fix this would be. Of course it wouldn't fix everything, and there's a long way to go, but it makes no sense the way it is now. Certain problems would go away immediately. Others would get better over time as officials grew to respond to one another. I just don't understand any argument for the other way.
And prong two of this is WHY a lot of this is happening. I don't get why no one wants to bring up the major elephant in the room: race. Ok, so Stern wants to curtail the violence, and I applaud him for that. There is a point (see: Artest, Ron) when violence gets out of control. But there's also a point when it's both entertaining and an asset. Magic-Celtics. Pistons-Bulls. Heat-Knicks. These were better cuz the teams were knocking the crap out of each other. But what happened in the mid- to late 1990s was a new crop of players came into the league. They wore corn-rows, banged to hip-hop music, and connections to criminality were easily drawn. On-court violence became less of an extension of tough, physical play, and more of an extension of the streets. Obviosuly, retrospectively, there is no difference between an on-court fight in 2005 and one in 1985, but visually and esoterically, there is.
In 1984, when Kurt Rambis clubbed Kevin McHale, he was tough. In 2006 when Carmello Anthony sucker punched Nate Robinson, he was a thug. The only thing that changed was the perception of the black athlete in the NBA. This is why baseball gets away with it, hockey applauds it, and basketball does EVERYTHING in their power, even if that means ruining the game to prevent it. I urge people to read articles from the late 1990s regarding violence. The word "thug" and "criminal" appears far more often than it should. There is a disproportionately vitriolic response against physical play and even violence in the setting of a basketball game. To ignore this element, which one can argue (like I just did) is the primary element in the curtailing of violence in games, is both ignorant and safe.
I am not "playing the race card," are acting as an apologist. All of us want to see more physical play, less techs, and more rivalry. But no one wants it from a big, black guy, with braids and a scowl. These guys are not criminals but athletes, and the associations are both wrong and detrimental to the game. It won't be until we, as consumers, and the mainstream press drop these associations with language such as "thug" that we'll see the game move back towards allowing emotional, and physical play, with sportsmanship added. Simmons is right on all accounts, and I applaud him for writing such an in-depth piece on the issue, I just wish he'd mention the giant elephant sitting in between Stern and Stu Jackson: race.
- ▼ May (9)