May 9, 2024 opinion

Are NBA referees killing the game of basketball?

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Inika Singh in California, United States

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December 15, 2021. Darius Garland during Houston Rockets vs Cleveland Cavaliers game.

Picture by: Erik Drost | Flickr

The United States National Basketball Association (NBA), eyeing lucrative advertising and television deals, has tailored the sport of professional basketball to favor fast-paced, dynamic offensive play.

Offenses are scoring more and defenses are stopping players less. This can be attributed to rising skill levels across the league. However, players, coaches, analysts, and fans have begun to wonder: is the league favoring a certain playstyle?

There’s another problem: more than a quarter of NBA players stated that the inconsistency of officiating is the league’s biggest issue.

From players making ‘money’ gestures to the referees, coaches angrily discussing film on laptops during press conferences, and even the league’s own Officiating Last Two-Minute Reports commonly displaying multiple incorrect calls, the state of basketball refereeing is incredibly dire.

There needs to be more accountability for consistently inaccurate officiating.

Incorrect calls and no-calls

A player is not allowed to hold, push, collide with, or interfere with another player using arms, legs, or knees. Contact with the opponent who has the ball in an abnormal manner is a foul (though there are exceptions, especially in the lower defensive box where players get more physical as they try to bully their way to the basket).

Too often, calls are wrong. Take this example.

Jalen Brunson, the star guard for the New York Knicks, gets called for a foul after Houston Rockets player Aaron Holiday initiated contact. This foul was called on a desperation shot when the game was tied 103–103 with no time left. The Houston Rockets were able to win on free throws.

After the game, officials admitted the call was wrong, as the contact that did occur was incidental and marginal to the shot attempt.

 

Sometimes, fouls are missed, as in this encounter between the Detroit Pistons and the New York Knicks.

Pistons player Ausar Thompson was tripped by the Knicks’ Donte DiVincenzo right in front of the referee – yet no foul was called. Thompson lost the ball due to the illegal contact.

With seven seconds left on the clock and the Pistons up 111–110, the Knicks were able to score and win the game. Again, after the game the referees admitted that the call was incorrect.

 

The referees in a January 15 match between the Sacramento Kings and the Milwaukee Bucks did not respect the established rules, resulting in a 142–143 loss for the Kings. I have provided a compilation of fouls that were overlooked when the Bucks committed them, but for which the Kings players were penalized.

 

 

Kings coach Mike Brown was fined for incessantly arguing the unfair officiating. Although I acknowledge that the Kings’ offensive struggles and missed opportunities significantly contributed to their loss, the problem is that referees officiate differently each game.

We have to make sure the game is called the same for both teams.

Technical fouls

A technical foul is a penalty for coaches or players for unsportsmanlike behavior. This can be for disrespectfully addressing an official, physically contacting an official, overt actions indicating resentment to a call or no-call, use of profanity, a coach entering onto the court without permission of an official, a deliberately thrown elbow or any unnatural physical act towards an opponent with no contact involved, and taunting. Two technical fouls result in an ejection from the game.

Officials frequently call technical fouls due to meaningless interactions. San Antonio Spurs star rookie Victor Wembanyama received one for bouncing the ball too hard after he was called for a blocking foul. Boston Celtics star forward Jayson Tatum once received a technical foul for clapping too hard after being upset with himself for missing a layup.

These are not disrespectful. Tiny acts of frustration are just the motions of sports.

It even hurts the fans, as some people only get to go to one game to watch their favorite players play, but then they get sent off for clapping.

Video assisted referees

Imagine if you had to watch grown men constantly colliding and hitting each other. Players, coaches, and fans are all yelling, cursing, and shouting insults at you. Wouldn’t you hold some grudges or make some mistakes?

Humans are flawed creatures, and we cannot focus on more than one thing at a time all the time. In addition, players now more than ever are getting extremely savvy, contorting and moving their body in ways that force referees to call fouls even if there was only marginal contact.

This is called flopping — an attempt to either fool referees into calling undeserved fouls or fool fans into thinking the referees missed a foul call by exaggerating the effect of contact with an opposing player.

It can be incredibly difficult to determine whether the physical reaction to contact is consistent with the expected effect of the contact in real time, while also enforcing other rules such as staying in bounds, not allowing traveling, and more.

If it is the case that referees are not able to keep up with the game’s speed anymore, it may be time to call in the robots.

The purpose of video-assisted referees (VAR) is to make sure that the officials’ calls are correct. VAR is monitored by an assistant and is already used in many other sports.

In football, VAR is used to review whether a goal stands or not, whether a penalty should be given after a foul, and the actions preceding a red card. During the 2018 World Cup, VAR decisions made the correct call 99.3% of the time compared to human officials at 95% (which is still very good, but a little easier to do in football compared to basketball).

VAR is also used in cricket, rugby, tennis, and American football.

The NBA has something known as Instant Replay, where officials can watch the preceding play to potentially overrule calls if a team’s coach challenges the standing call, but this is far from the advanced technology that could be used to check if a player is out of bounds, traveling, moving before taking a charge, or committing a moving screen foul.

Despite this, the NBA should make it a priority to advance VAR to decrease inconsistencies and unfair calls.

There are many reasons why VAR is not present in basketball, including the complexity of the rules, the fact that the game’s pace may slow down, and the league’s hesitancy to adopt new technology for officiating.

What’s the solution?

This is a grown man’s game. Players fighting through contact and being physical with each other is part of the appeal of NBA basketball. If the officials let players get away with contact, it should be on both sides of the ball.

The easiest method to fix these historically bad foul calls is by fining officials for repeated mistakes just as NBA players and coaches are, suspending them for missing significant calls that directly change the game’s outcome, and even firing them for consistently poor jobs.

Learn more:

Four Ways to Improve NBA Officiating

Replacing older officials with ones who understand the new era of the game, hiring former college players who understand what type of contact actually affects a shot, phasing out favoritism for the league’s stars that leads to increased calls, and simply defining each type of foul more clearly will make NBA officiating consistent.

In addition, players and coaches should be allowed to respectfully criticize officials without being fined. In order to make the game better for fans and players alike, listening to criticism is a given for the league, and dissuading players from talking will only hurt the NBA’s bond with the players and fans in the long run.

Let’s get back to a league where games are decided by skill and grit.

Written by:

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Inika Singh

Contributor

California, United States

Born in 2006, Inika is an Indian based in California, United States. She is interested in all things neuroscience and psychology and plans to pursue medicine in the future.

Inika is the captain and the MVP of her high school varsity basketball team and likes to compose and perform music for the piano, violin, and flute. She loves animals and sketches them for others and international competitions.

In her free time, she likes to play video games with her friends, watch movies with her mother, listen to music, and eat delicious food from cuisines all over the world.

She hopes to spread compassion and kindness with her profession, helping others through thick and thin.

Edited by:

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Justin Sau

Culture editor

Hong Kong, SAR

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