Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Zebra Dialectics

So I huffed and puffed and didn’t blow anybody’s house down in the last 24 hours. I’ve come to grips with what happened last night and I want to move on to a topic that is either perfect or completely inappropriate for the present moment: Refereeing.

Wait, before you run away screaming, I want to assure you that what I am about to say has nothing to do with the final moments of game 4, or even any specific calls that occurred last night. But last night is hardly the first time NBA refs have come under heavy scrutiny (now that’s what I call an understatement). In fact, an ESPN voluntary poll showed that the vast majority of those who voted believed NBA refs are the most suspect of any of the four major sports. So while watching the 1st half of the game I had a hearty debate with a good friend of mine about refereeing in the NBA, and I felt like our little back-and-forth deserved to be recorded.

So I’m sitting at a bar in Chicago with my good buddy Andrew and I happened to make a snide comment about how Joe Crawford shouldn’t be refereeing this game. I don’t remember which of us decided to take the comment seriously, but quickly we began discussing whether Crawford, because of his history with the Spurs, should in fact be allowed to referee their games.

So I decided to contend that his history with the Spurs makes him unfit to serve as an impartial judge. It’s not merely that he threw out Duncan on an entirely bogus technical last year in Dallas, but more so that he threatened to engage in fisticuffs with Timmy. “How could such a man fairly judge their game?” I asked.

Andrew responded by saying that it undermines referees to say they are unfit to ref one team but not another. They should either be qualified to referee any game or unqualified to ref any.

I quickly suggested that Crawford shouldn’t be refereeing at all, but I didn’t honestly believe that at the time. Yes, what happened last year with he and Duncan was absurd but he was properly suspended. I don’t actually think his actions last year merited his banishment from the NBA.

And, although I noted that Stern should have the good judgment to prevent such a pairing, you need a systematic way to restore faith in the refereeing.

I pointed out that in the American judicial system you are allowed to request that a judge not try your case without questioning the overall ability of that justice to successfully try a case. If you can establish a conflict of interest, that is grounds for judicial dismissal.

Andrew noted that part of the reason Judicial appointments are so heated is because Judges have such substantial freedom of interpretation, and in the NBA, although interpretation is necessary, it shouldn’t vary as greatly as legal thought does. He put the NBA in the middle of a sliding scale of other sports, citing football as the most concrete set of rules and baseball (in particular the pitch) as the most highly interpretable.

I felt Andrew had incorrectly applied my metaphor. I would compare the wide range of judicial thought to the difference between refs that call game tight or loose. If you, as an attorney, are pursuing a legal argument with a liberal basis, let’s say equal protection or labor’s right to organize, if the presiding judge is conservative that is not grounds to request his dismissal. You’re just screwed. Let’s say you’re a team, take the Utah Jazz for instance, that relies on hacking as a decisive element of its defense but the ref is calling the game very tight, well, you’re screwed.

But if you can prove that there is a conflict of interest, let’s say for instance that the plaintiff has a meaningful economic relationship with the judge, then that is grounds for dismissal. If you can establish a conflict of interest, for instance the ref threatened to fight one of your players, than there is a conflict of interest. (If a judge had threatened to fight a defendant, that would also be grounds for dismissal, just FYI).

I suggested that the league establish some sort of appeal process so that franchises (I pretty confidently believe that every front office should serve as an initial filter for all the absurd appeals players would request) could request certain referees not ref their games for whatever reason.

Andrew noted that, if such a process existed, it would most cost large amounts of time and money, or possibly even encourage fans and players to approach referees with even greater scrutiny rather than more respect. He also mentioned that in baseball you are not allowed to argue whether a pitch is a ball or a strike or else you are ejected.

I told him I have no problem if the NBA cracks down on in game complaining, but his point about whether this would hurt or help is probably the crux of the issue for me. If this process were used sparingly, it would be a huge step forward for the league. If it became a release valve for all the mindless whining that goes down in the NBA it would be a nightmare. And that’s about where it ended. Sometime during the next hour and a half is when I decided to go hunting for zebras.

But either way, I think the NBA has to be realistic about the nature of human relationships and the way they play out during games. It’s important to recognize that referees both need respect but are in fact imperfect. I think the NBA should not merely fire, suspend or apologize when little problems arise, but also attempt to restructure how the league handles referees in a way that restores fans’ faith in their play calling ability. But then again, if they did that, how would Stern skillfully dictate the outcome of the post-season? In order to have puppets, you got to have puppet strings, now don’t ya, David?

No comments: