Monday, July 5, 2010

Never Depend on a Referee

I think it was Dean Oliver who said that bad refereeing was inconsistent refereeing. This is something very different from making bad calls. Let me explain.

All in all, referees have an almost impossible job to do. Basketball is a game of motion in a relatively compact space. There's a lot going on between ten people on a court, and most of the time the referees do a good job of controlling it. (Although coaches would have you believe otherwise.)

It's the nature of the beast that a basketball referee is going to give a bad call sometime. The problem with basketball is that a bad call directly impacts the score of a game, since about 40 percent of possessions end up with someone scoring. A bad call of traveling can wipe two points off a team's score because the ball might have ended up in the basket otherwise. Likewise, missing a foul call can add two points to a team's score that shouldn't have been added.

Most of the time, this evens out. For an unbiased referee, the number of bad calls created is evenly divided among both teams, not impacting either club significantly. Bad refereeing has greater impact against good teams (because the points a bad team gets added to its score probably won't make up enough points to push a bad team into the win column) and against teams that have players who get into foul trouble: a bad foul call can make the difference between a player's foul tally being four, or five, or six and this impacts how many minutes that player should play.

The best referees recognize the impact of a bad call. Generally, referees are loathe to admit any mistakes for several reasons. First, they don't want the game to degenerate into Debate Club. Second, they want to assert their authority as the game's arbitrators. Third, basketball should be a game and not a science where 100 percent accuracy must be the rigid goal. But even so, a bad call can be reversed in some cases (but usually, must be changed right away) and when not, a referee can make up for a bad call by calling a ticky-tacky call on the other side. "Oops, I erased your basket on a bad offensive charge call. Sorry. When the other team comes back across the court, I'll call a 3-second violation and give you the ball back."

If a referee makes bad calls in the manner above, those referees might be bad...but at least, they'd be consistently bad, a sort of "unbiased bad" that impacted no one team more than the other.

The above is complicated by the fact that each referee seems to have a different view as to what kind of contact in basketball is acceptable. Theoretically, basketball is a non-contact sport but incidental contact is impossible to avoid. Some referees are willing to let players get mugged on the court. Other referees will blow the whistle if a player looks at another player cross-eyed. After a few minutes, a good coach will figure this out. They know that "the refs are going to let us play" and that the team can go out there no-holds-barred or that the refs are whistle-happy and that contact should be avoided.

During the Dream/Sky game, it appeared that the referees - #4 Sue Blauch, #21 Byron Jarrett, and #58 Josh Tiven - were of the latter school. It was a busy night for whistles. All in all, the Chicago Sky made a ludicrous 41 trips to the free throw line and the Dream made 39 trips. I don't think I've seen a WNBA game in the three years of following the sport where the teams made 80 combined trips.

Furthermore...the game didn't seem to be all that much of a physical game. (Let's ignore the Lyttle knockout for now.) Meadors didn't claim that the entire Chicago Sky was a bunch of goons. She didn't even claim Sylvia Fowles was a goon. (Nor, as far as I am aware, did Steven Key or any of the Chicago Sky players complain.) I didn't get that impression looking at the game, although I've only been following the sport for three years and I know that there are things I don't see.

Okay, so the refs were trigger happy. Big deal. Maybe McCoughtry and de Souza would have had to worry as well as Fowles, for all three of those players have a tendency to rack up fouls. Each team could have worked around that.

The problem, however, was that the refs were inconsistently bad in this case. The problem was Sylvia Fowles.

Now, let's back up. In no way, shape, or form am I stating that I thought Sylvia Fowles was deliberately trying to hurt Sancho Lyttle. What I am saying is that it doesn't matter if it was intentional, because Fowles's free-swinging elbows had an impact on the game that the referees simply ignored. For refs willing to blow the whistle every minute or so they never seemed to be looking in Fowles's direction.

Fowles hit at least three or four players that night with her elbows, and these weren't incidental contact hits either. These were "you're watching stars and planets rotate about your head" hits. We know about the Lyttle hit. Yelena Leuchanka also got hit, and I believe that Fowles clipped one of her own players (it might have been Mistie Bass).

There were two technical fouls called in this game. One was against Yelena Leuchanka. The crime was in complaining to the referee that Fowles had clipped her with her elbows. For that, Leuchanka got tee'd up. What the hell?

The second one was against Carol Ross, the Atlanta Dream assistant coach. This one requires some background. With about three minutes left in the game, and with Kelly Miller taking a couple of free throws, Sancho Lyttle was substituted. With the players lined up on both sides of the lane, Fowles was closest to the basket and Lyttle was standing next to her.

Miller missed the second free throw, and on the rebound, Fowles caught Lyttle under the left eye with the elbow. Lyttle collapsed to the floor, and was seemingly conscious for long enough to notice "I've been hit", grabbing her face. Afterward she collapsed into unconsciousness and was completely immobile for over a minute.

Words were exchanged, undoubtedly. I wasn't close enough to the bench to hear what was going on. Here's the important part: when you've got a player unconscious on the floor because she's been elbowed by an opposing player that the refs have not only refused to call a technical on, but have actually pinged one of your own players for bringing the matter up...well, would you expect words not to be exchanged?

Furthermore, Lyttle was immobile. We didn't know what her condition was. What if she didn't regain consciousness? That was a real stop-your-heart moment out there on the court. You can expect Atlanta's players and coaches to be...well, angry. That's part of concern for your teammate, that's one of the things that makes you a human being. And occasionally, you're going to lose your temper because of it.

Referees are mediators, and they have to make judgment calls. But just a few seconds later, the ref (was it Tiven) dinged Ross for a technical foul.

One person sitting next to me - whose basketball judgment exceeds mine - said that in all of her years of watching basketball, she had never heard of a coach getting a technical in a case when one of her own players had been knocked unconscious. Those are the times when you make allowances for temper, and those are not times to be martinets.

It was bush-league refereeing, and Tiven (or whoever it was that called the T) deserved every single boo that rained down on him. Way to go, dude. My, you're a big, big man for enforcing the rules. Except of course, the rules that prohibit you from swinging your elbows willy-nilly. But you're really great at teeing up a coach in emotional distress after one of her players got her head possibly smashed in. I'm sure that every player feels much safer that the game is in your hands.

From the WNBA official rulebook.

"The restrictions placed upon the players by the rules are intended to create a balance of play, equal opportunity for the defense and the offense, provide reasonable safety and protection for all players and emphasize cleverness and skill without unduly limited freedom of action of players or teams." (italics are my emphasis)

Maybe next time, Lyttle should bring a can of mace to protect herself. She'd be much safer than she'd be under the protection of any so-called WNBA "referee".

Of course, the referees could have simply canceled the technical. Why not? Referees - good ones, anyway - overturn each other's calls all the time. Or at the very least, apologized for it. Didn't the referee who killed that perfect game in baseball this year apologize for it? I didn't think the worse of him for doing so. It takes a big human being to admit that they're wrong and that they blew a call. The WNBA is infected with the pettiest referees (Price) that I think I've encountered in any sport I've followed outside of the WNBA. When it would behoove one to bend, they refuse to budge - I call it "doubling down on the stupid" - and I think less of them rather than more of them.

The WNBA refs are our dirty little secret. We get the kind of refs that we have because we can't afford any better. They're not just bad, they're not even consistently bad in some cases. The problem is that when players hit the floor unconscious, the dirty little secret comes out in the open. It's bad enough that we know how bad the W's referees are...but President Orender, does the entire world have to know about it, too?


kansasdreamfan said...

Great job assessing the situation! I've never been a big critic of officials because I recognize the challenges of their job. However, during the Sky game, I was on my feet and booing with all my vocal chords!

Anonymous said...

I especially enjoyed several sections of the arena chanted "You suck" at the ref during the wait once Sancho regained consiousness until she was able to leave the court. I've been a basketball player, then fan for 30+ years. By far the WORST officiating job I have EVER seen!