The N.B.A.’s Rule-Book Problem

In October, 2010, during a preseason game between the Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks, Boston’s Jermaine O’Neal was positioning himself for a rebound when he was called for a foul. After he approached a referee to ask for an explanation, he was whistled for a technical foul. When his teammate Kevin Garnett, standing near midcourt, turned to a different official to protest the tech, he was given a technical foul, too. Incredulous, Garnett kept complaining, and got a second technical, which meant an ejection from the game. O’Neal could barely register what was happening. “I was still dazed by mine,” he said after the game. Sixteen seconds after play resumed, the Knicks rookie Timofey Mozgov, playing in his first N.B.A. game, was given a tech as he passed a referee, for saying something in Russian.

The Celtics, at least, had been warned. In a game earlier that preseason, the Celtics forward Paul Pierce had been given a tech for punching the air in frustration following a foul. Pierce then looked around, confused. “Sorry,” the ref who blew the whistle, Steve Javie, said afterward, according to Pierce. “That’s the new rule.” The new rule: no demonstrative complaints about fouls. No angrily approaching refs. No swinging arms, no swearing. The league had determined that fans thought players were too whiny. The new initiative was referred to as Respect for the Game.

It was not the first time that the league had tried to crack down on complaining. In 2006, referees had been given a similar, but less explicit, edict, and technicals had spiked. Most famously, the San Antonio Spurs’ Tim Duncan, one of the best players in history, was tossed from a game that season for laughing at a ref—from the bench. According to Duncan, the referee who ejected him also challenged him to a fight. (The incident was too much even for the league office, which suspended the referee.)

That preseason game between the Celtics and the Knicks was clearly meant to set an example. Once the regular season started, and the games counted, players calmed down a bit, and the refs often swallowed their whistles when players violated the letter but not the spirit of the new laws. Everyone understands that the intensity of competition elicits emotion. These days, a player like Luka Dončić, an M.V.P. candidate who plays for the Dallas Mavericks, flirts with the dangerous threshold of sixteen technicals every year. (In a given season, the sixteenth technical foul a player receives triggers an automatic one-game suspension without pay, as does every pair of technicals that follows.) If he were actually slapped with a tech every time he whined, he’d be ejected from most of Dallas’s games.

But the Respect for the Game rules are still on the books, and lately arguing about technical fouls has kicked up again. In a poll of N.B.A. players published by The Athletic last year, officiating was named as the biggest issue facing the league. Earlier this season, the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown was given a technical for cursing while complaining (“Don’t call that weak-ass shit,” he reportedly said), then ejected when he waved off the official, as he continued complaining from the bench. Less than a week later, Nikola Jokić was tossed from a game, without warning, for calling an official a curse word after he believed he’d been fouled—a hook so quick that even the opposing crowd booed. More recently, Devin Booker, an All-Star for the Phoenix Suns, was ejected for making “disparaging remarks.” “Total B.S.,” the Suns’ head coach, Frank Vogel, said, disparagingly, after the game. And, just last week, the Atlanta Hawks’ Dejounte Murray was given a technical foul for not saying anything at all, but for ignoring a referee. (The league later rescinded that one.) The players’ frustration with the refs—and their frustration with the techs they receive for expressing that frustration—has become enough of an issue that, during the All-Star break, the league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, said that fostering “a two-way sense of respect” was “an area of focus.” He added, “The communication issues, sort of, between players and officials—I feel that’s an area we should be able to do a better job both ways.”

I’d had the same thought watching these games at home. But I had also wondered if perhaps the heightened frustration that I saw might have less to do with what’s happening on the floor than with what’s happening off it. Tempers seem shorter in many areas of life, particularly since the pandemic. People seem sadder, angrier, more distrustful. (Just ask Elmo.) We trust institutions—especially those that are meant to uphold some impartial vision of rules—less than we used to. It would be surprising if professional basketball players weren’t experiencing some of this, too.

Or maybe it’s just me. According to a league spokesman, technicals are actually down this season, nearly fifteen per cent from last year, and ejections are also down. Techs always stand out, because they interrupt the flow of the game. And there is always a degree of tension between players and refs. Almost every season, the state of refereeing seems to be in a crisis of one kind or another, as game-swinging calls are missed or botched. But that’s to be expected: the referees make hundreds of decisions a game; some of them will come at the ends of tight games, and some of those will be wrong. There have been two dramatic examples of this in just the past few weeks—one that went in favor of the Knicks, one that went against them. But missed or ambiguous calls also influenced the outcomes of games last season, and the season before that, and a decade ago, too. The N.B.A., which keeps track of referee errors but does not make a full accounting publicly available, says that the calls this season have been about as accurate as they have been in previous seasons.

Officiating an N.B.A. game may be more difficult than it was before. The game is faster than ever, and more dynamic, and the players cover more of the court, as three-point shooting has become a bigger part of every team’s offense. It can be harder for a referee to get the right angle on a play, or to keep his or her eyes on both the ball handler and the defensive player. But the league has invested in training its referees, and there is more oversight than there used to be. Coaches have been given the right to challenge certain calls, and there is automatic video review in some circumstances; a central replay center oversees all games. Steve Javie, the ref who dinged Paul Pierce for punching the air, has since retired from officiating, and now provides commentary on refereeing during ESPN and ABC broadcasts. And the N.B.A. publishes reports on the officiating during the last two minutes of close games, declaring which calls were mistakes. (Not that everyone always agrees—some calls will always be judgment calls.)

This scrutiny may have improved officiating—but it also magnifies mistakes. When an error is made, it doesn’t get forgotten: clips of it circulate widely on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook; replays are studied like the Zapruder film. Mistakes become injustices, and injustices do exist: the power exerted by referees, like that of any authority, can be, at times, deployed capriciously. And there are limits to the league’s transparency. If errors are tracked, why not share the numbers? Players’ fines are published, and their techs are openly counted, whereas the league keeps secret the referees’ grades, and any fines—if such fines exist. The young ref involved in Jokić’s ejection this season has not previously been assigned to officiate playoff games, one of the few public indications of what the league may think of a ref’s work. (On this, the players and the league aren’t always aligned: Scott Foster was voted far and away the worst referee in a players’ poll, and has been involved in several officiating controversies, but has been given many choice assignments.)

There is not much that the N.B.A. can do about changing larger social forces, however much it might like to credit the power of its own example. But, if Silver is serious about encouraging more mutual trust between players and refs, he could look again at his own rule book. The referee who gave Jaylen Brown a second technical for waving him off was following an exact Respect for the Game rule: “This type of overt ‘wave off’ will be met with a technical foul, as it exceeds the respect for the game guidelines, whether it’s directed towards an official or not,” the rule declares. “Players can react to calls with which they disagree, provided the reaction is not overly demonstrative, disrespectful, or prolonged.” Likewise, the foul given to Devin Booker, for profane language, is by the book: “Be reminded that profanity directed at an official is a technical foul by itself, and does not have to be accompanied by any other action.” What the rule book seems to require is not so much respect for the game, or even respect for officials, as it is a certain kind of respectability, full stop—a level of decorum that can seem excessive for an intense competitive sport when it’s strictly enforced.

The tactic that the league seems to be taking, then, is to rely on the referees, rather than the rules, to be reasonable—to consider whether a player already has a technical before issuing another; to ignore cussing or frustrated gestures some of the time, but not all the time. That’s the only way these rules have ever worked, after all. But part of the promise of the rule of law is that the laws themselves will be reasonable, and consistently applied. Refs will always get calls wrong. Players will always get mad. The rules shouldn’t give them a good reason. ♦

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