On Thursday night, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat took center stage once again as the Eastern and Western Conference Champions squared off in Game Two of the NBA Finals. After leading by as many as 17, the Heat began to run out of steam and allowed the Thunder back into the basketball game. With about four minutes left in the fourth quarter it was anyone's game.
It was a terrific basketball game featuring two of the best teams in the league and six of its biggest stars. It was great television and a great example of NBA basketball at its finest. Unfortunately, the only thing most people are going to remember about it is the ending.
With eight seconds remaining and the Thunder trailing by a bucket, OKC star Kevin Durant caught a quick inbounds pass that froze Heat star LeBron James who instinctively tried to give the Heat's remaining foul. The play happened so fast though, and Durant had already gone up for his shot. It was a clear foul in real time with James' arms deliberately tangled up with Durants and upon viewing the replay, you could make the case that James might have used up his three remaining fouls on that one play. Despite the obvious foul, there was no whistle coming from the officials.
If you're reading this, you know the rest. Durant missed the shot as he was being fouled, the Heat corralled the rebound and the game was essentially over after two free throws on the other end of the court. Miami had survived another second half collapse and evened the Finals at a game a piece.
If you've ever played competitive basketball at a level beyond your local rec league, you know that games are not won or lost by a single play, and neither was this one. The Thunder did plenty to earn this loss and any other result would have been cause for them to be arrested for larceny.
The problem though, is that once again NBA officials have been put into the spotlight despite the aforementioned star power that exists on this, the grandest stage the league has to offer. It's a subject that makes stomachs turn in the NBA's ivory towers in New York City and a subject that gives NBA fans visions of grainy Zapruder films and Oliver Stone movies.
"The refs are cheating!"
"David Stern want Miami to win!"
Those were just a few of the immediate reactions among angry fans who saw the officials miss another crucial call that turned the momentum of the series. It fueled the conspiracy theories that have run rampant through NBA fans for the last 15 years or so and is part of a perception problem that stems back to 2007, when former official Tim Donaghy was nabbed by the FBI for conspiring to fix games he officiated. The Donaghy situation validated many NBA fans who believed that the league was more akin to pro wrestling than actual sport.
The referees in the NBA have always been treated as sacred cows, far above reproach and even further above criticism. In the aftermath of the scandal though, NBA commissioner David Stern actually made the relationship even LESS transparent, if that were possible. And therein lies the problem.
Following the Donaghy scandal, the league should have made the handling of officials MORE transparent, not less. This would have gone a long way toward clearing up the perception that these guys are not just lackeys for the man signing the checks. By making the relationship even more cloak and dagger, you continue to fuel the perception that they aren't on the up and up and that there are more like Donaghy, despite the leagues claim that he was just a rogue official.
20 second timeout: The league is not fixed, the officials are not on the take, and there isn't some massive conspiracy to win the Heat a championship. By and large, the officials do an okay job. The problem is that many have simply been around too long and feel they're part of the show and officiate as such (see: Crawford, Joey). Then there are others who are just borderline incompetent. Being bad at your job doesn't make you a conspirator, it just makes you bad at your job. If you're a terrible accountant and cost your client money, it doesn't mean you're secretly working for another firm, it means you're a terrible accountant.
So how would you fix this problem of perception to help ease the public scorn?
It's a pretty simple fix actually. If you make obvious mistakes on crucial calls, you should be reprimanded, and the punishment should be made public. For example, Tony Brothers, the man in the best position to make the call during the moment in question Thursday night, shouldn't be allowed to be anything more than an alternate official for the rest of this series. An announcement like this would give the impression that the league at least acknowledges the gravity of missing a call of that magnitude and that there are consequences for doing your job below acceptable standards. A few seasons of this would go a long way toward dispelling the conspiracy myths that plague the league at every turn.
Don't think it's reasonable?
If you follow me on twitter (shameless plug), you know that I'm also a big soccer fan. Most American soccer fans will remember a certain incident during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa involving the United States and Slovenia. The US had rallied from a 2-0 deficit to tie the match, and in the 82nd minute Maurice Edu headed in what appeared to be the winner, but the referee, Koman Coulibaly, bizarrely blew his whistle and ruled the play dead. No explanation was given for the whistle and nobody could ascertain what would have justified stopping the play.
The next day FIFA announced that Coulibaly had erred in a crucial moment of the match and that he would no longer be allowed to serve as a lead referee during the World Cup. Coulibaly appeared in just one more match during the tournament, as a fourth official. There were no cries of conspiracy, no allegations that FIFA was against the United States, etc. They acknowledged that the referee blew the call and reacted accordingly.
How hard is that?
Of course, we know that Tony Brothers will be subject to no discipline from the league for his gaffe, and we also know that we will never know if there is even any discussion regarding the matter because of the league's policies with officials. The blogosphere and the twitterverse has been ablaze with theories and wild allegations that David Stern has preordained the winner of every game in this series. Obviously it's ridiculous to think that, but perception is reality with many fans.
Just know that this can all be avoided with a little bit of transparency. This doesn't solve the incompetency problem, in fact it would likely magnify it, but let's take this one problem at a time. By far, the biggest issue is that if FIFA has more credibility with regards to its referees than the NBA does with its, you've got a serious problem.