Instant Replay And Basketball Officiating

Yes, it is April Fool’s Day.

No, there will be no “Gotcha” moments in today’s rant.  You will have to find that sort of thing elsewhere if you have a craving for such…

The events in the final moments of the Texas Tech win over Gonzaga last weekend have been recounted in dozens of places.  If you did not see the game – or if you have not read an account of the late stages of that game yet – here is one report that is as good as any of the ones I saw.

There are two very distinct categories of controversial calls by the officials that are contained here.  The first category represents what surely appears to be missed calls by the officials:

  • There was a play that looked an awful lot like a kicked ball that was not called.
  • There was a ball saved from out of bounds where the player making the save stepped on the boundary line prior to making the save and that was not called.

In both cases, the replay rules would not permit officials to go back and “get it right” – which seems to fly in the face of the fundamental selling point for instant replay.  But hold that thought; I think there is a bigger point to make regarding instant replay and those two “missed calls” that I will try to make after I talk about the other controversial call.

The second category of controversy comes from a call that one sees about once every other year in all of college basketball.  [Aside:  And I cannot ever recall seeing this generate a whistle in an NBA game.]  Basically, what happened was that the defender on an inbounds pass reached across the plane of the boundary line and touched the ball before it crossed that plane.  In the rule book, that is a technical foul; in the real world, that happens every once in a while, but it is usually called as an out-of-bounds play and the team throwing in the ball is awarded another chance to do so.  [Aside:  This rule has been “on the books” for as long as I can remember from my basketball officiating days that spanned the 60s through the mid-90s.  It has not been called often but it is not a “new rule”.]

Given what happened Saturday night vis á vis what is usually called on these sorts of plays, you may choose to praise the game officials for “getting it right” or you may choose to say that they were showing off their rule-book knowledge and making a call that really only pertains to the rules’ exams that all officials must take and pass every year.  From my perspective, there is a little of both choices at play here; I have to say that were I confronted with the situation and I had a whistle in my hand, I too would have called the technical foul.  And at the same time, I acknowledge that officials far more competent than I ever was would not make that same call.  Your mileage may vary…

Here is what I think is an overarching point that seems not be getting sufficient attention:

  • Instant replay is not an unalloyed benefit for the college basketball.

Moreover, the problems associated with instant replay for basketball transcend the idea of “getting it right”.  Let me state the obvious just to get it out of the way:

  • Every fan of college basketball wants to see the officials get every call right; no one is in favor of incorrect decisions by officials during a game.

There was a time in my life when I was in charge of the officials for a local recreation league; and at that time, we used adult volunteers and high school/college students to officiate our games.  That meant that I had to run “classes”/”clinics” to teach some of them how to officiate because some of them had never done it before.  The following is the statement that I made as the opening remark in the first “class” for new officials every year:

  • If you think you are going to get every call right in every game that you do, you are going to be very disappointed.  There are two kinds of referees; those who have made mistakes and those who are about to make mistakes.  Your biggest challenges are to make as few mistakes as you possibly can and to avoid trying to “make-up” for your mistake once you realize you made one.  “Make-up calls” simply turn one mistake into two mistakes…

Instant replay takes the reality of officials’ mistakes and turns them into something much more than an error.  There are 3 officials on the court; how could it be that none of them saw that “kicked ball”?  There was an official in good position to see that foot on the boundary line, so why did he not blow the whistle and “get it right”?  [Aside:  There was another “foot-on-the-line call” that was “missed” with an official in perfect position to make that call in the final 5 seconds of the Duke/Va Tech game.  Since that “missed call” did not affect the outcome of that game, this error received little to no post-game attention.]  What happened in all these instances is that a highly competent official fell victim to “human error”.

  • If you believe that it is possible to eliminate “human error” from any human endeavor, you are probably someone who would have believed that no one would produce or consume alcohol during Prohibition because it was against the law.

When TV commentators choose to criticize officials for “ticky-tack calls” or for “the right call but not the correct call” on TV shows that can only survive with a progression of “hot takes”, they often resort to the old saw:

  • No one paid their admission – or tuned in – to see the officials put themselves in the spotlight.

That is anything but a constructive comment – unless the commentator can provide some sort of additional evidence that the official did whatever he did with that sort of motive in mind.  Moreover, that “insight” from “hot take analysts” ignores a very important feature of officiating that seems never to be articulated:

  • Maybe no one paid admission to see the officials, but if there were no officials there would be no game to pay admission to see.
  • Think about it; any player or any coach or any trainer or any pep band member can be removed from the arena and the game will go on.  If the officials leave the arena …
  • The officials are not perfect; they will never be perfect; they are not and should not be the focal point of the game; AND they are indispensable.

Instant replay shows the world the fallibility of the best of the basketball officials.  It is not a huge leap of logic for fans to conclude that less competent officials will make even more mistakes than the top-shelf ones do.  And so, when those fans attend a high school game to see their kids and/or their kids’ best friends play, they bring heightened suspicion to the gym regarding the correctness of the officials’ calls that evening.  Now, if you think I am being too defensive here, consider that the ranks of high school officials are the incubators for the officials that will replace the current “top-shelf officials” when Father Time eventually sends today’s officials to the sidelines.

Let me provide two data points:

  1. About 30 years ago, there was a sticky point for high school basketball officials here in Northern Virginia.  Schools and leagues wanted to put 3 officials on the court for all their games; it stretched the numbers of “certified referees” beyond the breaking point for a year and they had to postpone expansion from 2 officials per game to 3 officials per game for a year.  There are lots more officials doing games at the high school – and recreation league – levels than there are doing Power 5 conference games in college; but there is not a huge over-abundance.
  2. Today, the numbers of officials at the high school level are decreasing.  In Florida, the high school athletics oversight folks at the state level reported that the number of officials (in all high school sports) dropped from 8,352 in 2014-15 to 7,792 in 2017-18.  That is about a 7% drop in 3 years and there was an even more ominous note in their report.  Of the young officials who start out on this “career path”, 80% of them give it up in the first two years of experience AND the most often cited reason for giving it up is “adult behavior”.

The “adult behavior” here is the abuse and vitriol directed at the officials in those high school contests.  That sort of “stuff” predates instant replay to be sure; I heard more than plenty of it long before there were daydreams – let alone thoughts – about instant replay being used in the course of a game.  However, it seems as if the level of vitriol has spiked recently; and while I cannot prove it, I believe that some measure of that spike in vitriol is due to the prevalence of replay demonstrating the constant presence of human error and to the TV commentators using the officials as a foil for the “hot takes” that allow them to continue to earn their paychecks.

I started this by saying that instant replay is not an unalloyed success.  It is not; nor is it an unmitigated disaster.  It has provided plenty of value in those circumstances where the “replay rules” allow the officials to review and correct calls that were clearly incorrect.  It is – like every other human endeavor – less than perfect.  Lest anyone misinterpret, I am not suggesting that we ditch instant replay; that would throw the baby out with the bath water.  What I think needs to be done is to:

  • Examine the rules regarding when instant replay can be used to “get it right” for what categories of calls as often as possible.
  • Amend the tone and tenor of the commentary regarding missed calls when they happen.

It would be heaven-sent if officials walked into basketball venues where all the players coaches and fans began the game with a stipulation that the officials are both competent and people of good will.  That is not gonna happen in my lifetime … so maybe the best I can hope for is that players, coaches and fans will stipulate the good will of the officials prior to tip-off?

So, maybe that actually is today’s April Fool’s “Gotcha” moment.

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports……..



8 thoughts on “Instant Replay And Basketball Officiating”

  1. I think some leagues need to go under because of a lack of officials. It appears from the numbers you cite that is a distinct possibility.

    Dedicated volunteers (like you were) prevent this from happening by working an ungodly number of contests for little or no compensation. Love of the game is a very powerful motivator and keeps a lot of amateur sports afloat … for now.

    1. Gil:

      The Florida overseers of high school sports also said that schools will not be able to expand their schedules any more and that cutbacks in the number of games played could be a possibility down the road if the number of officials there does not stabilize or increase.

  2. After playing basketball in high school and college I was certain I could officiate a basketball game. I needed to supplement my income as a grad student and it was easy to fit a part time job as a basketball ref into my schedule. After a couple of years I was beginning to get assignments to a few small college games in the Atlanta area. I say this to make the point that I was a decent high school ref.

    One night I called a game in Jefferson, Georgia between the home team and a particularly reviled rival. It was a very physical game and the star center for Jackson County fouled out in the fourth quarter with the home team behind by a few points. After the game I was verbally accosted at the exit and threatened that I would not make it back to Atlanta alive. Luckily, a sheriff’s deputy overheard the threat and escorted me and my partner ref back to the Atlanta suburbs. That was my last year officiating. I knew the fifth foul call was correct, but was not as certain about an earlier one. It was just not worth the stress.

    1. Doug:

      Almost every official who has done more than a few games has a story similar to the one you just shared here. Those are the extreme reactions to be sure – – but they do happen more often than they should.

      We had a situation in a rec league game for 11 and 12 year old boys where the father of one of the players got into a fist fight with my partner official (a 21 year old college student) after a game and the father was arrested by a local police officer who was the parent of one of the kids just arriving to play in the next game of the day. So the father is hauled off to the police station; his 12-year old son gets to go with him; and the police officer’s son does not have his dad in the gym to watch him play. As if that game mattered enough to make all that happen…

  3. Well thought out and informative. Your prospective from the experience if a referee were invaluable to the narrative,

  4. It’s like that in rugby as well. Until the upper tiers only one ref is there for 30 players, and your touch judges are from the teams (and may be biased). You call them as you see them and you need to be consistent and at least get the teams to cheat equally. First unwritten law of rugby: if you aren’t cheating you aren’t trying (mostly on gaps from scrums and lineouts, but opportunities abound).

    Bottom line, though is that teams can adjust to a bad ref but not a biased one. I also note that in the Dubs’ loss to Minnesota on Friday, the officials had another starring role and it may only be coincidence that the Donaghy story was getting some attention at ESPN.

    IIRC the Pac 12 is going through a review process of their officiating (football, but it may have been expanded) because of some of the howlers (as the British call them) made in various games they’ve officiated. It always seemed to us Blues that bad calls routinely hit the Bears hard.

    So, with all of that noted, let’s remember the big picture here: it’s a game and depending upon the level it may not even make the local paper. So, even though certain fans think that buying the ticket includes a license to yell at or threaten the officials, it doesn’t and will usually be counterproductive (every time I’ve seen it the players tell the fans to shut up). The fundamental solution lies with the league, since if the game result is decided by bad calls (or no-calls) there has to be a mechanism to mitigate the outcome (i.e. twin wins in the standings). In a single-elimination tournament that is much harder, though since only one team can advance.

    1. Rugger9:

      Indeed, these issues exist outside the world of basketball.

      AND you are so right when you say that players can – and do – adjust to bad officiating but cannot possibly deal with biased officiating.

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