One Simple Solution to Help Refs Keep NBA Games Fair

This season, the NBA added new rules that penalize players for flopping in order to hold players accountable for keeping games fair, but there’s nothing in place that holds referees accountable for blatantly terrible calls. Don’t get me wrong, I think refs have a very difficult job and a thankless one. It’s also difficult to keep up with the pace of the game and sometimes they don’t have the angles that the players, coaches or even the fans get. So they make bad calls or miss calls that should have been made. Those bad calls are understandable. However, there is a whole set of calls that refs make that are less forgiving.

At the end of the day, refs are human beings. They can’t help the biases that they have and are often unconscious of these biases. It is commonly accepted that refs treat superstars, such as Kobe Bryant and Lebron James differently than other NBA players. These superstars get what are called “superstar calls” and on average they get a disproportionate volume of favorable calls. Refs also discriminate against non-elite rookies/young players and no-name players. So if you have a large number of these players on your team, such as the Houston Rockets do, you suffer a large volume of unfavorable calls throughout the season. No names like Toney Douglas and non-elite youngsters like Greg Smith often get called for fouls they didn’t commit and fouls against them have to be blatantly obvious for it to be called. Lin, despite being a mega star, also gets treated unfairly by the refs. In fact, it’s really disturbing how many times Lin has been hammered or banged up without any whistles from the refs. I mean, if this happens just a few times, that’s bad enough, but for Lin it happens far too many times. Lin also gets called for offensive fouls that he didn’t commit. The most recent example was in the Celtics game (on 1/11/13) where Rondo just missed a layup and Lin was called for a foul, even though Lin didn’t touch Rondo. Lin also never gets the benefit of the doubt when he’s trying to draw an offensive foul, yet, is whistled for offensive fouls–even when his man is in the restricted area as in the New Orleans Hornets game (on 1/9/13). I’d be fine with all of this if Lin also gets calls in his favor that he doesn’t deserve. Then there would be a balance, since on average, you figure players should get the same amount of favorable and unfavorable calls that they didn’t deserve. But for Lin, I can’t think of a favorable call he got that he didn’t deserve. I have actively sought this out when watching Lin play, but don’t even have one example to give.

Regardless of whether or not we’re talking about Lin, referee discrimination in the NBA is widely known and accepted. In fact, commentators often make references to the fact that rookies need to pay their dues (i.e., suffer their share of bad calls). But this discrimination in the workplace shouldn’t be tolerated! Teams that don’t have a lot of superstars on their roster have to battle not just the other team, but also the refs on a nightly basis. Unfair calls by refs don’t just penalize a team for that one specific possession, it sometimes has psychological repercussions that affect the entire game and sometimes an entire season. When players continue to get unfairly treated by the refs, it hurts player morale and players sometimes just throw up their hands in surrender.

I have one simple solution that will diminish the factor that human-error/discriminatory refereeing play in the NBA and make games more fair: give teams one or two (haven’t thought about the optimal number) referee challenges per game. These Challenges would work similarly to the way Player Challenges work do in Wimbledon (professional tennis tournament).  Each team has the option to challenge a referee’s call anytime during the game. Once a challenge has been made by a team, the referees would be forced to watch replays and re-convene to uphold or withdraw their call. Teams may also challenge non-calls (this one will be more difficult to figure out exactly which type of non-calls, since play is generally not stopped during non-calls). If the team wins a Challenge (i.e., they were right and the refs made the wrong call), then they don’t lose their challenge, however if the team loses a Challenge (i.e., they were wrong and the refs made the right call) then they lose their challenge. So lets say that teams are given two Challenges per game, if they use one of the Challenges and are wrong, they are left with only one remaining Challenge. However, if they challenge a call and turn out to be right, then they still have two Challenges. Simple enough?

The obvious criticism is that this will slow the game down. But if you think about this beyond just a knee-jerk reaction, you will discover that it actually probably doesn’t add that much time to the game. I mean, think about time outs, teams don’t use time outs when they don’t need to and I think teams will be even more judicious in their use of Challenges–most likely saving them for the final few critical minutes. Also, some challenges may actually speed up the game. For example, if a team challenges a foul call in which the player on the other team is in the act of shooting and the team that Challenges the call turns out to be right, then the game doesn’t have to be held up for foul shooting.

After I thought of this idea, I don’t know why this hasn’t already been in place. It seems something that is much needed in the NBA, because everything is moving so quickly and human error in officiating becomes a huge liability. This will also cut down on the number of Technicals and upholds the entire purpose of having referees in the first place, which is to keep the game fair.


19 thoughts on “One Simple Solution to Help Refs Keep NBA Games Fair

  1. I am sure you know about the NFL challenge rule, right Philosopher? I think the NFL challenge rule works out really well for them. The NBA should take a look.

    • It’s been a very long time since I watched the NFL (used to be a huge Joe Montana fan), but I figured the NFL would have challenge rules. I think challenge rules are just common sense, which is why it doesn’t make any sense why it doesn’t exist in the NBA. There have been too many games where the refs end up winning the game for a team. I’m sure refs have been a big factor in determining championships. It’s just ridiculous that there’s no recourse against poor refereeing in the NBA.

      • Hey, I’m a huge fan of Joe Montana too. I was a grad student at UC Berkeley around the time Montana was drafted by the 49ers!

      • Jerry Rice, too, of course! I’m hoping my niece gets into UC Berkeley this year.

      • Good luck to your niece!
        Dunno what the admission policy these days is, but back in my days, there was a quota on students of Asian descent! Sad story!

      • Thanks, MrPingPong. Yeah, I’m not sure if they have a quota, but I’m sure there’s an unofficial one. My niece is mixed-race, so…

  2. You are absolutely right Mr.Philosopher!!!

    In my opinion, they are the game changer/s especially during those close games.
    I heard a lot of times that they are the ones who can make the team win or lose the game.
    And JLin has been a victim of these unfair calls many many times this season.
    It takes for him to bleed to get noticed by the refs that he was fouled.
    Definitely not good.

    Anyways, glad they finally get that W!!

  3. Mr. PingPong and Philospher and everybody, help!

    I’ll be attending a game next week. I need some advice. Would it be better to sit behind the bench or on the opposite side, facing the bench? Which one would give me the best view of Lin’s interactions w/teammates and coaches?

    Also, how early should we get there if we want to see lin warm up? Doesn’t he normally warm up before the actual team warms up?

    • Wow CW! Which game are you seeing?

      I usually showed up about 30 min before tip-off to watch the pre-game warm up. However, Lin and Harden usually came out about 90 minutes before tip-off to do their own pre-game drills, then left and came back out to warm up with the rest of the team about 20 min before tip-off. Here is a link to a live game account by a Rockets fan.

      To watch Lin and his interactions with the rest of the team, it’s best to face the bench or sit by the end zone nearest to the bench. Of course, if you want to hear them talking to each other, you would want to sit right behind the bench. Those seats are expensive!

      To illustrate, here is a link to the seats map of Toyota Center in Houston.

      The lower end zone section 114 is right next to the bench. Section 108 is the one facing the bench. Section 119 is behind the bench. The home team comes out of the tunnel under section 111.

      I hope this helps you a little.

      • Thanks for the info, MrPingPong!

        I read that the coaches showed footage of when they were rolling back in December. i think this is a good move by the coaches, since their confidence is way down right now and they need to see with their own eyes that they are capable of playing well.

        The ball movement/off-ball movement was much better in the Nuggets game–especially in the first half, but the Nuggets pulled away in the third, just like the Clippers did. Nuggets are a more talented team than the Rockets right now, so it wasn’t an unexpected loss. I think Rockets will get revenge on the Hornets. For one game, at least, they’ll be focused, because they got reminded of what they’re capable of.

      • It’s the game in Denver. I’m looking at their stadium now. Do you know which side of the arena is the opposing team’s bench?

        I’ll let you know how it goes, thanks so much!

      • CW, if you watch the Nuggets highlights, you probably can tell which side the home bench is located.

        I hope the Rockets win tonight. I do not know what has been going on in practice and behind the scene, but I do not like the way McHale manages the rotation. Lin is Mr. 4th quarter and should have the ball in the 4th quarter and not sit on the bench. Sigh!

      • Agree with Mr. PP, JLin is Mr. 4th Q. Don’t know what KM was thinking. Lin was benched in the two previous games. Sigh……x N

      • Ha, Rox won!

        Good things happen when Lin has the ball in the 4th quarter. Actually, good things happen when Lin is given the freedom to control the ball in the whole game! I’d like to see more ball movement in that 4th quarter though.

        Let’s beat the J…s out of the Nets tonight, Lin! Remember Linsanity1.0? 🙂

      • I missed the game, but looks like Lin did well, from the stat sheet. 6 steals! Also his counterpart only had 2 points? It sounded like the game played out pretty much how I expected it to. I think it was good for the players to be reminded of how they can play when they play their brand of basketball, which is Lin’s brand of basketball.

      • Bet D. Williams will play extra aggressive tonight to show/prove his value and humiliate Lin. GO ROX! GO JEREMY!!!

      • Yep, I’m sure D. Williams will try to take it to Lin, but Lin is an even better defender this time around. I haven’t payed attention to how D. Williams is doing this year, but haven’t heard much about him, so assume he isn’t doing that well. I don’t think he’s gonna go off and get 30 on Lin. Hope Rockets continue to play the way they’re supposed to play. Run, move the ball, move without the ball, and share the ball. Also, give Lin lots of screens–especially high screens.

      • From the Nets’ website, DWill “suffered a quad contusion in the third quarter vs. Memphis,” but will play tonight.
        So if Lin shuts him down, then people will say, ‘well, DWill is not 100%’. But if DWill shows any sign of life, then people will say, ‘Lin is no good’! That is the way of the Lin!
        I think Lin is used to it by now. The amazing thing about Lin is he never calls anybody out, no matter how bad things get.

        Anyway, Lin will boss tonight, DWill or no DWill…


  4. Mr. Philosopher,

    How resourceful you are to come up with this referee challenge rule! Hopefully this can reach Stern or some NBA officials to cause some change. However, I doubt they’ll adopt it since it would mean a compromise of their supreme power over teams and players. Another reason for my pessimism is that bad officiating doesn’t seem to be a serious enough issue for them to care at all. First, it seems to me that teams rarely reason with the refs when there is bad officiating–the rockets’ coaches didn’t stand up for Lin. Also, for this past year–my brief encounter with the basketball world of NBA–I haven’t read any articles from any sports writers on any basketball websites targeting refrees’ officiating, except for yours, and yet we’ve seen quite a lot of complaint from fans.

    Today, I read about the Kings’ game that Lin couldn’t play more due to unfair foul calls. Well, this officiating matter really needs to be taken seriously. I’d say, other than expecting a revolutionary change such as having a referee challenge rule, people could start calling out bad refs–why are their names never mentioned? I think by keeping track of refs with poor officiating and posting their names could force them to be more cautions and impartial. And perhaps whichever palyer committed dangerous fouls and got away should be called out, too.

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