NBA Referees Have Great Power and Great Responsibility
By Ian Smith
It’s hard addressing the problems of refereeing in a sport without coming off as callous, considering how difficult their job is.
The game moves so quickly, and combined with the pressure of the crowd to influence any decisions they make, it’s easy to slip up and miss some basic calls.
Having said that, if fans expect players to be at their best, then it’s fair to expect referees to also be at the top of their game.
What’s troubling is that this postseason has been especially filled with critical referee errors at crucial points in the games. The league supposedly utilizes their best officials to work postseason games, and yet the referees who are apparently the best in the world at officiating basketball games are consistently missing key calls at important moments.
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The latest example is Russell Westbrook’s would-be travel in the final minute of game 1 between the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder had a 3 point lead when it happened, and a resulting turnover would have given Golden State a chance to tie the game up with a 3-pointer. That’s a potentially game-altering call that was missed, and the league admitted it just hours after it happened.
Basketball is a beautiful game, but the glaring flaw that it has compared to other sports is that referees have far greater influence on the action; perhaps too much influence. The fact that a referee can blow a whistle and award free scoring opportunities to one team over the other makes basketball constantly vulnerable to unfair coercion.
The type scandal like the one involving Tim Donaghy is far more likely to inflict basketball because of the subjectivity of what a foul is. Players are making contact on every possession, so it isn’t hard to call a foul at any given moment and somehow find a way to justify it.
Whether the referee misconduct is either intentional or unintentional is irrelevant to this discussion, but the simple fact is that these refs are able to have a large influence on the outcome of the game because of the power the game bestows upon them to police the action.
It’s different in other sports. Umpires in baseball may have the power to establish a specific strike zone, but other plays like base runners advancing bases are far more objective; either the runner beat the tag, or he didn’t. A ball either lands in fair territory or it doesn’t.
Football has that old adage that a holding penalty can be called on any play, but a holding penalty doesn’t turn the ball over and give the other team an opportunity to score.
Think about that: basketball is a game where a referee can blow a whistle and award possession to another team. That’s immense power to wield. Soccer is the same way, but the difference is that it’s so much more difficult to score in a soccer game.
Basketball referees can control how many possessions each team gets, which goes a long way in determining who wins a game. When a team is over the foul limit, a referee has the power to basically award free points to a certain side, assuming that the player makes the free throws.
It’s certainly a flaw to basketball, but there’s really no solution to it. It’s just a part of the nature of the game.
NBA referees certainly have a difficult job to do, but the stakes are heightened due to the role refs play in the action of an NBA game. It makes it even more consequential when they end up missing a Dion Waiters push or a Westbrook travel or any other crucial call.
With great power comes great responsibility, and these refs need to be close to perfect, especially in the finals minutes of an important playoff game that can have championship repercussions.
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It’s a challenge uniquely tailored to basketball, and we need a better performance from these all-powerful refs.