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On Consistency of Officiating

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In the wake of the complaints coming from certain angles regarding the zebras in the first two games of the Finals, some candid officiating discussion seems like it would fit the mood.

But we're not going with Lakers-Celtics officiating talk.  Too much politics there for me in the wee hours of a Tuesday morning that still seems to be featuring the remnants of Monday's sweltering northeastern heat.

No, the focal issue today comes courtesy of a line I heard on talk radio while in the car on Monday.  We won't identify the host or the station because this isn't about calling out a particular host, particularly since he espoused a viewpoint that more than a few basketball observers have sympathized with as well.  This particular individual simply put forth the following idea in as succinct and striking a manner as I've heard it:

"There needs to be an understanding that there is a set of rules for the first 36 minutes, and then there is a set of rules for the last 12 minutes."

In my book, this line of thinking represents a problem.  A significant problem.

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The conventional wisdom seems to be that referees are best served to swallow their whistles late in close games so as to 'let the players decide the game.'

Half of that makes sense to me.

Letting the players decide the game sounds fantastic.  Count me in for that eight days a week.

The problem is the idea that the way to do that is by not making a call.

Basketball -- particularly organized basketball -- is not and never has been a free-for-all rumble.  We have other games for that sort of thing.  Basketball is a game that allows for a certain amount of contact but has a set of rules to regulate what content is legal and what isn't.  Simply put, fouls are a part of the game.  Whether it has to do with hand-checking, off-the-ball obstruction, the restricted area, planting one's feet or otherwise, the rules are the rules. 

The NBA rulebook states, "The primary purpose of penalties is to compensate a player who has been placed at a disadvantage through an illegal act of an opponent."  It is nearly impossible to imagine that a play that puts a player at a disadvantage in the first quarter doesn't do the same in the fourth.  Whether it's the slightest of bumps or checks or a slash across the shooter's arms, if a given play is listed in the rulebook as a foul, then it is by definition the sort of act that illegally puts one player at a disadvantage.  To that end, a foul is a foul is a foul.

Thus, letting the players decide the game isn't dependent on letting them play "no blood, no foul."  It rests on the principle of consistently forcing them to play within the established guidelines and regulations.   Living by the non-call puts the fate of the game at the mercy of those most willing to break the rules.  Sounds counter-intuitive to fair play from here.

If hand-checking is a foul in the first quarter, it is a foul in the fourth quarter.  A game decided by two foul shots as a result isn't 'stolen by the refs.'  It's decided based on a poor play by a defender.  An offensive player who up-fakes and fools a defender into initiating contact with him has drawn a foul.  That's the way the game of basketball works.  It works that way on playgrounds and courts everywhere.  Compromising the integrity of the sport for the sake of the entertainment value of games that don't end at the foul line isn't the job of the officials.

Speaking of offensive players who up-fake defenders into hitting them, as CelticsBlog moderating chief Roy Hobbs points out, the NBA funneled some infuriating commentary to the masses in the wake of the Brent Barry-Derek Fisher debacle in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals.  As reported by Steve Springer of the LA Times:

Before the statement by the NBA late Wednesday, league spokesman Brian McIntyre said referees Joey Crawford, Joe Forte and Mark Wunderlich may have been following a league guideline in failing to make a call.

"There is an explanation in the rule book," said McIntyre, "that there are times during games when the degree of certainty necessary to determine a foul involving physical contact is higher. That comes during impact time when the intensity has risen, especially at the end of a game. In other words, if you're going to call something then, be certain."

That's just aggravating.  It seems self-evident that officials should be as certain as possible for every minute of every game.  That's because it's their job to enforce the rules and to enforce them -- gasp -- correctly at that.  That is the job description for every second that they are on the floor, and thus the idea of asking for a higher level of certainty seems impractical.

An official who consciously chooses to ignore illegal occurrences because of the time and score of a game has played a definitive role in deciding the game.  An official who makes the call when a foul occurs has allowed the players' actions to decide the game. 

Sometimes, players' actions result in fouls.  Sometimes they don't. 

Officials are employed to fairly and consistently make that discernment.  Not to increase ratings.