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.