Basketball games, particularly NBA basketball games, involve more calls from the officials than the other Big 3 sports combined. Sure, an umpire can consistently affect a baseball game in a significant way by making the strike zone smaller or larger, but referees in basketball are directly responsible with preserving the integrity of the game because their calls are so consequential, even as they try not to be (they’re loathe to blow their whistle even for a slight foul in a final possession, but it’s still been known to happen on egregious occasions).
The idea of referee collusion in gambling circles and the continuing theory the game is “rigged” came to a forefront for me personally during the NBA Finals. One friend, a casual observer of the game that hardly ever tunes in unless I’m at his place or the Finals are on, said the game is too subjective to take seriously. I used his beloved baseball and the strike zone as a counter, but the subjectivity is more apparent in a game where the difference between a charge and a block is infinitely more missable to the human eye than the difference between a strike and a ball.
Another person, this time a casual acquaintance, who was watching game 2 of the Finals with me, switched allegiances because he felt the referees were unfairly giving calls to the Thunder, a team he had started the series cheering for. The strange thing about this guy’s flip was he went from cheering the Thunder on to the Heat. Sure, that’s about as bandwagon as you can get—since the Heat only lost the first game—but after studying him closely, I don’t really think that’s why he switched it; although, he did whoop pretty loudly when LeBron won his ring, like he had been with him from the beginning, which is something I still find hard to stomach. The strange thing about his flip-flop was it happened to be the opposite of what most everyone agreed was a Heat team getting the majority of the calls in this series. So much so that another friend—this one a longtime fan that knows more about college basketball than I could ever hope to, and knows almost as much about the NBA—got so enraged at a pro-Heat (as he saw it) referee corps in game 3, he nearly broke a hotel television set.
Nothing pisses people off more than a blown call in a sporting event, but the problem with the vast majority of NBA games is the blown calls are too complicated for the casual fan to understand. Taking a charge and getting whistled for a blocking call is the most overt example I can think of. A lot of people think they understand what a blocking call is in relation to a charge, but it’s really a lot harder than what the casual fan watching on TV believes is the proper call, especially when you think about the true speed of the play in real time. It’s super fast, and judging something like position and whether a defender’s feet are set—or his whole body and weight are set—often appears subjective, and that’s because it is.
Go to NBA.com to read the block/charge rules, and at the end there’s almost a caveat to the language. To wit:
“The mere fact that contact occurs on these type of plays, or any other similar play, does not necessarily mean that a personal foul has been committed. The offi-cials [sic] must decide whether the contact is negligible and/or incidental, judging each situation separately.”
The point is, it’s open to interpretation, and when they’re grey instead of black and white, someone or some group is gonna be upset. All these basketball fans I watched the finals with (one casual, two more knowledgeable), had major gripes with the refereeing in the NBA Finals. I don’t blame them, and the evidence against the the officiating also has to include one of the blackest stains on the league’s history: Tim Donaghy.
Donaghy, if you didn’t know, has recently won a nice little settlement from the publishing house that did his book: Personal Foul: A First-Person Account of the Scandal that Rocked the NBA. Except the book and his gambling on games didn’t really rock the NBA, at least according to the continued interest from fans (also, check out Deadspin’s pull-quotes from the book to get an idea about Donaghy’s claims). Whether this was the NBA’s Teflon moment—sorta like the record high ratings for this year’s Finals after a prolonged and arduous off-season of owner and player (agents) bickering—or just the “so what” factor from basketball fans that preferred not to have their fondest basketball memories tinged with unscrupulous officiating, is anybody’s guess. Just know that Donaghy did not destroy the game like a lot of people thought he would.
I do know that even the most ardent and empirical basketball minds use controversial calls at the end of games or in big moments as excuses when their favorite team doesn’t win. Their thinking is that if the more talented team didn’t win, that’s on the officials. In reality, the more talented team not winning is primarily a result of the more talented team not playing up to snuff and the less talented team playing above their heads. But that gripe of mine is something I blame on simply being human and not wanting to see your favorite team lose.
The largest part of my problem with people that bitch and whine about officiating—whether it’s warranted (2006 Dallas-Miami Finals, in which Donaghy was a referee), or not (this year’s Finals; in particular, the game 2 no-call on LeBron when he defended Durant)—is that there is a larger force at work. That diabolical force is usually commissioner David Stern; he of the thinly veiled Shylock-ian charges of malfeasance (see also—and not unfairly—the nixed CP3 deal to the Lakers). Supposedly (bear with me as I attempt to empathize with these conspiracy theorists) Stern checks in with his officials not to make sure they’re ready to deal with any discrepancies in rules or to talk about prior games and things to avoid, but he calls the refs to directly or implicitly order them to give the fans what they want: basically stripping the game of it’s honesty by forcing—through referee manipulation—the game to be more exciting for fans. It’s either that or the tacit agreement between Stern and officials that there shouldn’t be a blow-out. As we saw in game 5 of this year’s Finals, and game 6 in 2008’s Finals, even the most blatant attempts to keep a game close aren’t going to overcome teams that are simply better.
This same belief also stems from the draft lottery, which—in an unfortunate stroke of bad luck for Stern’s PR this year—landed the only NBA-owned team the #1 pick. Whether this a coincidence depends on whom you ask, or where you ask them. Very few national columnists for Yahoo or CBS Sports reported the draft fixing story as some factual argument, but it’s generally cast off as “suspicious,” which can also be said about some of the calls in the Finals. But think about what has to happen for a game to be fixed or a draft lottery rigged. The number of people involved in a draft lottery cover-up combined with the fact no one with knowledge of the events has gone on record—or even alluded to such a conspiracy—makes it implausible—and, failing that, totally impossible; to many people would have to keep the secret, and it would get out. The same can be said with the officiating patterns in a specific playoff series or specific game. Officials try to get the call right every time. There is no agenda because there is nothing for a refree to gain but a possible grand jury indictment and a FBI suit at your door. After Donaghy got caught, you can be sure Stern is keeping his omnipotent gaze on the rest of the NBA’s referees to make sure it wasn’t a more wide-spread problem. Then again, Donaghy’s book makes a good case that all is not right with the men in black and white, but that’s easy enough to blame on his bitter ex-referee purview—just know it’s out there.
The point is that they’re are always going to be people who claim something was rigged and someone cheated to win, but the moment we start letting the fringe elements take the lead in determining what’s happening is the same time we start listening to political wackos on both the right and left control the issues for the larger constituency of the in-between. Oh wait, we do.
Well then I guess there’s no avoiding the referendum on referees any time something appears just a bit to convenient for Stern and Co. The referees are guilty of match-fixing, the commissioner is guilty of rigging the draft lottery and nothing is as it appears. It’s a nice Dan Brown plot, but it’s not the world we live in. Ockham’s Razor etc. because when a ref makes a shitty call, they just made a shitty call. There’s nothing more going on. And if there is, I doubt they would have been able to get away with it for so long. If they did, then bravo to them for fooling me all these years.
Now watch, something will come out about how Stern instructed the refs to give the Heat the series so LeBron’s narrative could have a nice conclusion. At that point, I’m the idiot chump, but until that day comes and until there is irrefutable proof the NBA is fixing games or draft lotteries, I’m gonna go ahead and trust that they’re providing an unbiased league where everyone (save the Bobcats) has a chance to win the NBA title.
If not, maybe we should just give referees different outfits, so fans are too distracted to give a shit about the charge or the block that was just called on their team.
PHOTO ABOVE: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America