Joe-Pinions: Sports

18 Mar 2011 – NBA Officiating: A Stern Problem

Posted in Basketball by txtmstrjoe on 18/03/2011

NBA referee Bill Spooner recently sued the Associated Press and one of its sportswriters, Jon Krawczynski, for defamation.  Spooner sued Krawczynski and the AP over the following Twitter message Krawczynski sent while watching the January 24, 2011 game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets:

“Ref Bill Spooner told Rambis he’d ‘get it back’ after a bad call. Then he made an even worse call on Rockets. That’s NBA officiating folks.”

Here’s a little background information to put that tweet into the proper context:

  • Spooner called a foul on a Timberwolves player in the second quarter of the Jan 24 2011 game between the Timberwolves and the Rockets.
  • Timberwolves head coach Kurt Rambis engaged in an argumentative discussion with Spooner regarding the call.  Rambis obviously disputed the call.
  • Spooner told Rambis that he would review the call at halftime.
  • Rambis said he was fine with that, but then pointed out the fact that his team lost two points as a result of the disputed foul call.  He then asked Spooner how the Timberwolves were supposed to get the two points back.

Up until this point, there have been no disputes regarding what has been presented thus far.

Spooner’s claim that Krawczynski somehow defamed his character and damaged reputation depends greatly on whose version of what happened next you want to believe.

Spooner claimed that he didn’t respond to Rambis’ question regarding how the Timberwolves were supposed to get the two points back.

Krawczynski’s tweet clearly shows that Spooner did respond to Rambis in no uncertain terms:  According to Krawczynski’s tweet, not only did Spooner tell Rambis he’d “get it back” (what does “it” mean here?  The two points, or the foul call?), but he made a second bad – and apparently, an intentionally bad – call penalizing the Rockets to restore the balance and create some measure of justice for Rambis and Timberwolves.

As appropriate for people in his profession, Jon Krawczynski was seated at courtside.  He was thus well-positioned to see, and hear, any conversations Bill Spooner and Kurt Rambis had during the game.

Clearly, it’s a case of “he said-he said;” who you would be more inclined to believe then becomes a question of who has got more credibility behind him.  

A journalist’s livelihood is 100% dependent on his own personal credibility.  Not only that, but his employer’s credibility is also at stake.  A journalist with his credibility in question is useless, and any institution that hires or works with a journalist with his or her personal credibility damaged in any way will be discredited and ignored by a serious and critical audience.

(As an example, just look at Jim Gray and ESPN with critical and discerning eyes.)

In an ideal world, the same would be true of people whose job it is is officiating sporting contests.  This includes referees, umpires, line judges, stewards, clerks of the meeting, and other officials in all sports, whether amateur or professional.  Credibility is everything for people whose professions are all about deciding the legality of sporting events, whether these occur at a micro- or at a macroscopic level.  Mr. Spooner, then has a lot to lose if his personal credibility is sullied as a result of Mr. Krawczynski’s revelations as trasmitted through Twitter.

On the surface, it’s very difficult to tell whose version of the truth is correct.  Since they look to be mutually-contradictory, only one version is true (or, is much closer to what actually happened).  The task of sifting through the recorded facts, meager as they are, seems nearly impossible.

But let’s inject some other considerations.  First, the AP has moved to legally defend themselves and Mr. Krawczynski against Bill Spooner’s defamation lawsuit.  This clearly indicates that they stand by Krawczynski’s story and are prepared to defend themselves in a court of law.

A second consideration is purely my opinion:  While Mr. Spooner is not particularly known to be a bad NBA referee, most knowledgeable NBA fans would be very quick to admit that the league’s officiating as a whole is atrocious.  It is therefore not far beyond the realm of possibility that the call Spooner made against the Timberwolves which inspired Kurt Rambis to have that argument with Spooner was indeed a bad call.  In other words, Spooner could have made a mistake, and Rambis became irate over it because it adversely affected his team.

To his credit, Spooner promised to review the disputed call at halftime.  Most bad officials would undoubtedly just use their powers and punish anybody complaining over a debated call with a technical foul, or even an ejection from the game.  But Spooner apparently wanted the opportunity to review the call at halftime.

The problem with that, of course, is that while he might later see the disputed call as indeed incorrect, the consequences of the call may have affected the entire basketball game as a consequence.  What if that one disputed call gave Houston all the momentum at a critical point of the game and they built a big lead as a result?  

Mistakes happen all the time, but it is my opinion that Spooner made a big mistake by telling Rambis he would even review the call at halftime.  I think the better and smarter response was to walk away from Rambis and not continued the conversation, especially since it was obviously a very emotional moment in the game.

If Krawczynski’s report of the incident is true, Spooner made two bigger mistakes.  He apparently told Rambis he’d “get it back,” and he penalized Houston with a disputable call soon after.

It was very wrong to promise any competitor over which you are supposed to be an impartial judge (as referees are supposed to be) anything.  If Krawczynski was being truthful in his Tweet, Spooner was very stupid to have said anything to Rambis that could have been construed as a promise.

The bigger mistake, though, was penalizing with a questionable foul call later in the game.  In my opinion, two wrongs never make things right.  Spooner compounded his mistakes by willfully and intentionally trying to restore some semblance of balance.

Spooner is right to defend his reputation, but I think he really has no legs to stand on.  I strongly agree with Krawczynski’s derisive final sentence in his Tweet which ignited this controversy.  By saying that “That’s NBA officiating folks (sic),” Krawczynski not-so-subtly told his Twitter followers (and, as a consequence of Spooner’s defamation lawsuit, the world at large now) that the quality of NBA refereeing leaves much to be desired.  You can see the shrug of resignation in Krawczynski’s Tweet, an acknowledgement of the sad state of affairs in NBA officiating.

I used to play basketball at a competitive level, so I do have some experience playing the game.  Perhaps I was never ever good enough to be a college-level player, but it’s absolutely true that I used to play in organized leagues and tournaments.  My point is, I’ve been between the lines; to whatever limited degree, I do know what it’s like to compete in basketball, and I know what it’s like to be subject to the quality of the referees officiating the game.  

Missed calls are a huge deal in most, if not all, sports.  But even as a competitor, you do understand that the referees are only human.  They make mistakes.  You just hope and pray that you and your teammates don’t get victimized by a bad call at the worst possible time.  But even then, sometimes honest mistakes still do happen.

In the NBA, though, it seems that their officials are beyond criticism.  If a player or a coach or any team official would dare lob any kind of critical comment directed at the referees, even if backed up by video or photographic evidence, the NBA and commissioner David Stern would surely respond by levying fines or other penalties.  Allude to any questionable calls, you’ll probably get a call from an irate David Stern or one of his henchmen, bullying you to can it, or suck it up and forget about it.  

I can remember times when Phil Jackson would get fined because he pointed at two or three game-changing calls; Mark Cuban is another unforgettable critic of the quality of the NBA’s officials.  Shaquille O’Neal got punished with a huge fine for complaining on a local television post-game interview about the calls made during a game.  

My point is, it’s very easy to point to examples of the NBA’s officials’ ineptitude, which is the best possible description of some bad calls.  My less charitable side would just call the NBA’s referees malicious, unjust, and completely unfit and unworthy of their station and pay (easily into six figures).

David Stern’s policy of acting so defensively at an institutional level towards any criticism leveled at this particular class of his employees is inappropriate.  There is clearly a gigantic group of accusers, from players, coaches, the press, and fans, who can obviously see that the NBA’s officiating is sub-standard; why punish all those who point it out?  Why not look at the problems, study them, eliminate the worst officials from the payroll, and strive to improve on the quality of your employees’ performance?

But David Stern, in his arrogance, seems to believe that he is beyond reproach.  Any change to the status quo would be seen as a capitulation on his part, an admission of weakness.  It seems to me that he doesn’t care about the implications on the competitive aspect of his reluctance to censure his referees.  The ideals of sport and fair competition are far lower on David Stern’s priority totem pole than where I personally think they should be.

Bill Spooner’s lawyer was told by the NBA that to continue the suit against the AP and Krawczynski wasn’t likely to be “productive.”  At this point, I don’t know if Spooner has withdrawn his defamation lawsuit.  The league’s VP for Basketball Communications, Tim Frank, also said that they investigated the events described in Krawczynski’s Tweet and found it to be without any real merit.

It looks to me that the NBA would be content to just sweep this whole episode under the rug.  Maybe they think people will forget just how bad the league’s referees are if they can cover this incident with Spooner up with no real response.

Don’t let David Stern hoodwink you, as he always does. 

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One Response

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