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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Ric Bucher Says that the NBA's Officiating Problems Go a Lot Deeper than Tim Donaghy

In an article that appears both at ESPN.com and in the August 13 issue of ESPN the Magazine, Ric Bucher says that some NBA referees hate their jobs so much that one told him, "Guys buy lottery tickets everywhere they go. If they win, they're just going to leave their shirt hanging in the locker." That is certainly an attention getting statement. What exactly has upset these referees? Bucher asserts that it goes well beyond any anticipated backlash next season because of the Tim Donaghy situation and cuts straight to the heart of how the league evaluates their work: "They are convinced that public or team perception of a call will ultimately dictate whether the league finds it correct." He also says that the league chooses "correctness" over "fairness," citing as an example the suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for leaving the area of the bench at the end of game four of the San Antonio-Phoenix series. These two charges are mutually exclusive, though: if the NBA is swayed by "public or team perception" then why did it suspend Stoudemire and Diaw, a move that was hardly popular? Some of the anonymous assertions by referees about how the league is being run are not much more credible than the conspiracy theories that have been uttered by fans who sound like they are wearing tin foil hats and communicating with aliens via transmitters hidden in their dental fillings. Conspiracy theorists believe that the draft and the playoffs are manipulated by the league but cannot explain why the NBA would want San Antonio in the Finals instead of Phoenix or why Greg Oden landed in Portland--or why LeBron James is in Cleveland instead of New York, Boston or Los Angeles; the great thing about being a conspiracy theorist is that no matter which team had gotten James there would be a sinister-sounding theory to explain it.

Bucher adds that the current referees do not respect director of officials Ronnie Nunn or his boss, NBA executive vice president of operations Stu Jackson. Bucher says that the referees view Nunn as someone who was a "competent" referee during his 19 years on the job but not "an authority or the ideal for how the job should be done," while Jackson is looked at with suspicion due to his "undistinguished record" as a coach and general manager. For their part, Bucher claims that Jackson and Nunn have insisted to Commissioner David Stern that the problem is that the referees are resisting the measures that Jackson and Nunn have attempted to implement to improve call accuracy.

Part of the problem in evaluating a story like this is that no one, not even a veteran NBA reporter like Bucher, can get anyone who is currently involved in these matters to speak on the record. Stern, Jackson and Nunn all declined to talk to Bucher for the article, while current referees will only talk to the press without attribution (except for special occasions when one game official will be permitted to talk to a pool reporter). So all of Bucher's quotes in this article come from anonymous sources. Anonymity gives one freedom to say all kinds of things, because your words cannot be traced back to you and your credibility cannot be challenged because no one knows who you are or what ax you might have to grind.

I'll admit that I have not comprehensively studied Nunn's work as a referee but I don't recall him egregiously blowing calls nor do I recall him issuing technical fouls left and right to prove that he is in charge; in my book, that puts him ahead of Hue Hollins and Jake O'Donnell, two former referees who have recently come out of the woodwork to criticize Nunn's performance as director of officials. I cannot speak to what has been going on behind the scenes with Nunn and his employees but I do not understand why it is considered a bad thing that Jackson and Nunn are, in Bucher's words, "trying to develop a corps of interchangeable whistle-blowers, each one calling every minute of every game the exact same way." Didn't people used to complain about "superstar" calls, rampant traveling violations and other inconsistencies? Jackson and Nunn are being made out to be bad guys for trying to eliminate some of the very things that supposedly were turning off basketball purists.

Bucher says that Nunn's weekly show on NBA TV is not popular with the rank and file officials--but that show is one of the few instances of the NBA providing the kind of transparency that so many people have said that the league needs to have regarding its officiating. I think that his show is great because Nunn admits when referees have gotten calls wrong but also defends his referees when they got calls right but were incorrectly criticized by broadcasters or others. Any fan who watches the show gets a better understanding of what exactly referees are supposed to be looking at--and how difficult it is to make split second calls without the benefit of instant replay. The show is very educational and presents referees in a good light overall without sugarcoating the fact that sometimes calls are missed. Nunn repeatedly makes it clear that his goal is for fouls and violations to be called the same way no matter who is involved and regardless of how much or how little time is on the clock.

I realize that Jackson and Nunn are probably going to be made the fall guys for the Donaghy situation and perhaps to appease the apparent general unrest among the rank and file referees--but before heads roll I'd like for someone to explain exactly what Donaghy did and how he got away with it. Maybe there is something wrong with the grading and evaluation process. Maybe other referees were in on the scam or covered for Donaghy in some way. Maybe it is very hard to detect if a highly graded official decides to shade the outcome of a game by making a couple borderline calls while otherwise playing it straight. Based on Nunn's stated objectives and based on his explanations of calls during his TV show, I don't think that his concept of how a game should be officiated is bad. Perhaps some things about the evaluation process need to be tweaked but that cannot be fairly judged until we know what went wrong with Donaghy. Despite what some people may believe, I think that NBA referees do a better overall job than their counterparts in the NFL or MLB. The NFL has had some highly dubious officiating even in the Super Bowl (Pittsburgh-Seattle quickly comes to mind as one example), while baseball's strike zone changes from day to day based on the whims of the plate umpire.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:47 AM



At Monday, August 06, 2007 3:37:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are a few things I don't like in Bucher's column - for instance, I don't see what the infamous suspensions have to do with officiating. That's a decision made by the league office to implement a rule that's "apart" from others in that there is as little a measure of judgement as possible. Players are suspended if they take specific objective actions irrespective of the situation or their intent. So I don't see what's to do with officiating.

The Crawford thing also smells of revisionism: just a couple weeks ago it was good riddance he was out of control, now due to unrelated events he's a poor victim of a spiteful office.

Fryer's retirement, however, seems to be right on the spot, and very much relevant for the subject matter of the column.

Basically, these complaints are nothing new. Refs have been at odds with the league office since 1946, and with the director of officials ever since such a position was established. There have been ref strikes, and there have been individual high profile referees waging a personal war with the "establishment", from Earl Strom to Richie Powers to Norm Drucker. Strom himself devotes a significant part of his autobiography to critizism of the league office and their directives.

Essentially, it boils down to a league that wants to remove personal, subjective bias in refereeing, which is an activity that relies on personal judgement. I see both sides, I understand the league attempting to standardize refereeing so that teams stop sending ballboys to see who's in charge (and adjust their play accordingly), and I understand refs feeling irked at having their very in-game position scheduled in advance.

It does not help that the league has taken several u-turns in recent history ("we're calling t's on every complain", "oooo good heavens, it's a t's fest out there, better give some leeway now"), but I still think that the bottom of the issue is that there is an intrinsic conflict in the league trying to have direct, absolute control of an activity that relies on instant judgement of the situation and context. It shows in that NBA refs must have an iron will to control a ballgame, but then you ask them to follow your guidelines over their instinct or criteria.

The NBA has been exerting increasing control of all NBA related activities; players resent that, but so long as they are making multi-millions they will live with it. Refs don't make multi-millions, get no endorsements and receive little popular adoration.

At Monday, August 06, 2007 4:11:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with you regarding the suspensions not really being relevant to the article's main points. I think that Bucher's idea is that the suspensions illustrate a pattern in the league office's thinking that extends to how the office manages the referees but, as a I pointed out, Bucher is actually contradicting himself--or his anonymous sources--because you can't say that on the one hand the NBA is swayed by public opinion in how it grades referees and then say on the other hand that it chooses "correctness" over "fairness" in suspending the two Suns, which was obviously a very unpopular move.

Crawford was called in and warned before about similar conduct, so I just cannot work up the sympathy for him that so many people seem to have. If we are up in arms--and rightly so--about Donaghy maybe fudging one or two calls a game to affect point spreads then how can we not be outraged that a referee threw out perhaps the league's best player for laughing? If referees are allowed that much power then for sure we will never be able to detect any possible funny business.

Fryer's retirement is relevant to Bucher's points but Fryer has been at this for three decades; how much longer could he officiate anyway? I don't think that his retirement alone proves that that things are as bad as Bucher is asserting. Also, Fryer is the referee who did not call a foul on Bowen at the end of the game, after which LeBron could clearly be seen saying to Fryer, "He fouled me right here." I guess when you are the protagonist in an article then your questionable calls are not brought up but that play looked as strange as anything that has been found on film of Donaghy so far. I don't know what that means and I am not accusing Fryer of anything but I would think that with all this film watching of Donaghy that it would have been appropriate for Bucher to say something about that call.

You are right that referees have long been at odds with the director of officials (the position itself, not just Ronnie Nunn) and with the league office. That is why I take Bucher's article with a heavy grain of salt. I think that a lot of the retired referees (Hollins, O'Donnell) who are speaking up now have axes to grind, while the current referees are all speaking anonymously and also probably have axes to grind.

I'd like to know exactly what Donaghy did and how he did it. Then we can properly assess Jackson and Nunn's level of culpability. Of course, that information is in the hands of the federal government, so we don't know when it will be revealed to the NBA.

At Monday, August 06, 2007 6:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Offtopic: some years ago there was a site called "On Hoops", which carried a series of "Earl Strom memories" written by his son Eric.

I've often regretted that I did not take the precaution of downloading them to a safe place in my HDD, and they were lost when the site closed down unexpectedly. Terrific reading, and a sad loss.


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