Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Stern's Folly - The Referee Crisis

Stern has a mixed record in my estimation. What will tip the balance is his response to the reffing crisis. So far I have to say that his slapping of a gag order and attempt to depict it as 'one bad apple' does not bode well for his legacy. But I'll get to that in a minute.

Stern became commissioner in 1983-84. This was a year that witnessed the league reaching a pitch of competition and level of play that has rarely been equalled since. That includes the most memorable finals in the past three decades (in part, I would argue, due to the 2-2-1-1-1 format that Stern dismantled for TV reasons).

Now obviously Stern had little to do with the cresting of the wave in 1984 - a peak that I would argue lasted roughly five years before 'bad boy' thuggery eroded the aesthetic appeal of the game. Stern has always sought to raise the profile of the NBA and take advantage of the good fortune of his inheritance, but in so doing he has as often catered to the immediate return rather than the long-term health of the game.

Unlike Wilt, for example, when the NBA widened the lane to reduce his dominance, Stern has overseen changes that have made dominant players more dominant not less. This could be related to his marketing focus on individual stars rather than the team dynamic. For example, the three point line was brought in, obstensively to increase scoring - a poorly thought out strategem - but it also coincidentally minimized the one weakness in Jordan's game. Likewise the 'no charge zone' - which could have been enforced by rules already on the books (you can;t stand under the basket to take a charge from a player making a layup) - also coincidentally gave Shaq free rein to wreck havoc without restriction.

I think the short-sightedness of these initiatives lay in a failure to think through the impact of changes, but that failure was due to the fact that the game dynamic was not valued whereas individual accomplishments were in promoting the game. There has been some progress in this over the past few years, but the record has not been stellar by any means.

Stern seems to have made a similar error of focusing on short-term rather than long-term with regards to reffing. Rather than think long-term what is in the best interests of the game (breaking up the cronyism and favoritism that is apparently rampant in the reffing ranks and promoting refs who can control the tempo of the game rather than ones who are 'technically' the best on each and every call) Stern has resorted to fines, technicals and gag orders to punish dissent. He has not examined the problem from a disinterested perspective (or commissioned anyone else to do so) but rather behaved as one would expect an authoritarian to do - tell everyone that things are fine and to 'shut the eff up.'

After all, the problems with the reffing have been bubbling up for the past 15 years. The key with the gambling is not that it occurred, but rather that it could occur over a period of years without it being especially discernable, because the refs have become such a dominant aspect of the game that incoherent calls, favoritism and meddling wiht the outcome of contests has become the norm, not the exception. That is the failure that Stern has to clean up, and he has shown no notion of the challenge that he faces.

If you really think that the reffing of 2007 is comparable to 20 years ago, then please watch some old recorded games, you will be astounded how behind the scenes - and effective - the refs were. There were fewer of them and hence of higher quality - expansion has not only hurt player quality. They were not micromanaged, they were allowed to manage the tempo of the game depending on the demands they faced and in general facilitated a much more free-flowing sport.

After all, the importance of being a ref is not in making each call conform to what someone who has never refereed considers 'the correct call' regardless of context (refs today are 'scored' on their calls by people with little to no basketball experience) but in being consistent and getting the big calls right. I myself never minded the make-up call (which is not allowed anymore) since it was an admission by a ref that (a) they are not perfect and (b) that the balance of the overall game was more important than any particular ticky-tack call. And in general the refs of old were able to strike a judicious balance - in part because they were allowed to and in part because it was expected.

Being a ref in a sport like basketball is like being a judge. You have the laws but in order for the spirit of the law to emerge you must be able to take the context into account. If you micromanage a judge (through mandatory sentencing) or a ref (through all the 'scoring' Stern has instituted) then you remove their ability to ensure that the spirit of the rules are observed. Instead you have a nearly 400 pound Shaq being allowed to knock people over on the basis of a rule that was designed to prevent a defender from undercutting someone going for a layup.

Richie Powers was the ref in the triple overtime in '76 who refused to call a timeout for Paul Silas when Silas was signalling for one right in his face with mere seconds left on the clock. Why? Because Boston had no more time outs at the end of regulation and as Richie reportedly said later, he did not want to see a title decided by a ref rather than the play of the participants rather than a technical foul shot with no time on the clock. You can argue whether he was right or wrong (I would say right) but what you can't be argued is that it is this sort of responsible attitude toward the integrity of game on the part of the refs that Stern has been very successful in eradicating. Heck, Stern himself banned two key players from one team from the pivotal game in what was essentially the 2007 championship series for actions that had ZERO impact on a game just completed!?!

And that illustrates why Stern does not and will not be able to clean up the primary problem currently plaguing the NBA - the marked intrusion of refs into the action through standards that allow a whistle to be blown anytime, anywhere with little regard to the essential fairness, balance or justice of the game. Because by essentially meddling in the outcome of the NBA playoffs for little to no reason, Stern showed himself to have no comprehension of the anything beyond the basic letter of the law and hence no understanding of the elemental concepts of fairness and justice - which must alway take into account context and proportionality. And if the commissioner himself has little to no clue regarding what is essential for maintaining the respect of league among its fans, then how can we expect him to instill it and demand it of those who represent his league? In short, you can't - and that goeas a long way to explaining how we ended up mired in an NBA referee crisis to begin with.