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NBA Refs

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on June 12, 2008

In today’s Boston Globe, Hall of Fame sports columnist, Bob Ryan addresses the issue of former NBA referee and now convicted felon, Tim Donaghy’s accusation that, in essence, some NBA playoff games in recent years have, in effect, been fixed. In particular, Ryan confronts NBA Commissioner David Stern’s smirky, closed-door, closed-case response to the serious and damaging accusations. In the midst of all this (and certainly many times over the course of my basketball life), I have thought, “no, I would not want to be an NBA ref”.

It is a tough task because an NBA ref is asked, simultaneously, to be human and not human. Human in that it is expected, because you are interacting with human beings all over the place – players, coaches, fans – needing, probably wanting to show respect, courtesy, even a modicum of friendliness with a dash of personality. Is that not natural and even called for in this position? But it is almost paramount, necessary, in fact, that the referee be inhuman as well, oblivious to the emotion surrounding him (or Violet Palmer), unaffected by the thought of what the reaction to a call made before 20,000 home town fans at a crucial moment in the game might be. Is that even possible?

Ryan calls it “subconscious crowd orchestration”. But is that right or accurate or capture all of what is going on for a ref? I might call it “subconscious crowd response awareness”. Orchestration is more subversive, more, even if “subconscious”, power hungry than what a good intentioned referee would be engaged in. If you give the benefit of the doubt to a referee, and I believe you can do that for the majority of them, even the great majority, it still leaves them vulnerable to who they are: humans. A human being who may like or dislike a team or a player or a team winning or a team losing and in need of sympathy. A belligerent crowd that needs shutting up, or an underdog playing valiantly and with sound character. How can these feelings, as Ryan says, “subconscious” not creep into it? Impossible.

What I wonder is whether any of this is talked about among the refs. Referees must review what they are going to do pre-game, just like any team does. They sit in a lockerroom and surely talk about positioning, reminding each other of how they’ll deal with situations, last-second shots, conflicting calls made by two refs, rough plays, fights and near fights. But do they say: “hey, let’s remember to leave any feelings we have beforehand and that get generated at the moment, in the course of the game out of this. Let’s make the call as it should be called, clean and simple, as if no one were in the gym, like we knew none of the participants and were unaffected by who they are and seem to be. Let’s call the game out of the rule book and let the game as it’s played and should be played decide. Let’s get our hands together. Rule Book on three: one-two-three – RULE BOOK!”.

Do they say that?

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