The Charlotte Bobcats - and many of their fans - got their playoff baptism yesterday and found out that the water wasn't fine. In fact it was, pardon the pun, downright foul. The officiating was an atrocity. It angered a lot of people, but it shouldn't have come as any surprise. In fact, veteran basketball fans knew certain things would happen. So many people were already aware that refs have a tendency to look the other way when a superstar commits an infraction that there were jokes made about Stern sending out a memo to the refs reminding them to be sure to do it.
The more I think about it, the less funny it gets. No other sport would tolerate situations where the officials control the outcome of the game. It does happen in wrestling, but I'm talking about actual sports here.
Pro football is a sport where the ball is in play on average, less than 15 minutes per game. All other time in the 3 hour plus contest is spent with chains being moved, players in the huddle, and yes, refs reviewing calls. It's even part of the strategy of the game itself because of the limits placed on the number of review requests each team can make and the penalty of a lost timeout preventing teams from abusing the system. As a side effect of the timeout penalty, no team can claim a particular bad call cost them the game. The responsibility for protesting the call is sitting in the pocket of the head coach the entire game. If a bad call gets by and affects the outcome of the game the referees don't take the heat. The head coach has to explain to the media why the red flag stayed on the sideline. The coach has only himself to blame.
So the NBA finally decided to implement the instant replay. The rules regarding what qualifies as a reviewable play are more confusing than the instruction manuals for home theater systems - written in Korean. Reviews are uncommon - ostensibly because of the fear it will disrupt the flow of the game. I'm of the opinion that a game skewed by bad calls is a hell of a lot more disruptive than a 2 minute pause to review the play could ever be.
Every fan of the NBA knows what to expect in the regular season. Fines to coaches and players that are critical of the officiating are so common that they're a cottage income for the NBA itself. Because of this, everyone tiptoes around their criticisms in press conferences, coming as close as they can to drawing a fine without actually crossing the line. Coaches openly say things like, "I don't want to pay another fine, but you all know what I really want to say." It's ridiculous and it gets even worse when the playoffs start. Some things are considered givens:
1. The superstars will get called for their first four fouls just like regular human-type folks. After that they pretty much have to shiv someone in the open court to draw those last two fouls. Ask the fans (because they're the only ones that can speak openly without getting fined) and they'll tell you it's because it hurts the ratings if Kobe or Lebron fouls out. Stern and the NBA loudly deny this, but the facts speak for themselves.
2. In almost every playoff game the losing team AND their fans will blame the loss at least partially on blown calls. More often than not though, they'll be right and the video evidence proving their claim will be up on YouTube before the players have finished showering.
3. At least one game WILL be decided by a controversial call that will be discussed and griped about around the local watering holes through eternity.
It is shameful that the NBA allows this to continue. The technology exists to film someone picking out a wedgie on a street corner FROM SPACE. Why can't referees, surrounded with enough video technology to count the hairs on Tyson Chandler's chin, properly manage a game played in a closed room? Who gives a damn if the review proves the refs were wrong? We all know they're human. No other legitimate sport would allow this to go on yet in the NBA it continues year after year. Why? Along with everyone else, I blame Stern. He doesn't seem to realize that this problem is destroying the credibility of the game he claims to love so much. I love basketball and spent years defending the game from its detractors, but the officiating problem has grown so huge that I can no longer pretend it isn't there.
I have friends that no longer watch the playoffs because of the bad calls. I also have friends that go so far as to say the games are downright fixed to ensure that the teams in the larger media markets advance deeply into the post-season so TNT, ESPN, and the major networks are guaranteed big audiences. I spent years scoffing at such conspiracy theories, but I can't deny that something is very wrong in the NBA.
The officiating is universally bad. Neither Orlando or Charlotte are what you could call major markets. Neither is among the top 20 in terms of population or television ratings yet the men in the Foot Locker shirts were still laughably bad at doing their jobs. It doesn't matter if it favored the Magic or the Bobcats. Ultimately it's the fans and the game itself that are the losers. It sucks that the situation is allowed to continue. What sucks more though, is that it could be easily fixed. To paraphrase the opening to the 6 Million Dollar Man, we can fix it. We have the technology. I'm convinced though, that the problem will remain with us because we have the wrong man sitting in the Commissioner's chair.