Rants from Grouchy Oscar: tired officiating complaints

Updated: December 9, 2009

Oscar the Grouch

I’m cranky this morning, and I promise it isn’t solely because I had to watch Tony Allen play basketball last night, though that assuredly played a role. This one has been a couple of days coming. The more I think about the latest instance of the media uttering my least favorite refrain about referees, the more agitated I get. So let’s bust out our trash cans today and pay tribute to my Sesame Street-residing alter ego’s preferred mood with a good ol’ rant.

During one of the several well-contested games in the NBA D-League this past weekend, one individual who led his team in scoring fouled out in the final minute of a two-possession game. Suffice it to say the player in question was in the midst of a fine performance and had upwards of 20 points on the night. What matters is this: Upon said player’s departure, one of the game’s broadcasters lamented, “Don’t you have to know that the [insert number here]-point scorer has five fouls, and maybe give him a little leeway on the hand-check?”

Um, no.

Please halt. Cease and desist. Stop this line of conduct.

I’m not going to name the player, the teams or the announcer in question, partly because I have no prior problem with the broadcaster and no desire to single him or her out for some sort of embarrassment, and more significantly because it isn’t this individual’s statement so much as the prevalence of this viewpoint among some observers of the game that baffles me.

Basketball is a game with a set of rules, and organized basketball includes a set of people whose job it is to specifically serve as impartial arbiters of those rules. Referees are not employed to maximize entertainment value or to serve as guardian angels for whoever has the hot hand on a given night. They are there to enforce the rules, which oddly enough do not vary based on the identity of the players or the time on the clock. A foul is a foul is a foul, whether it happens in the game’s first minute or its last.

I get that the ideal espoused above isn’t always executed in reality, that star treatment has been a part of sports for as long as anyone can remember. That doesn’t make it right, and there is plenty of justified frustration among fans and media members alike on that point. But the goal for referees shouldn’t be standardizing some vague better-players-can-do-whatever-they-want-whenver-they-want approach. It should be a system blind to the names on the back of the jerseys. While we may be a ways from reaching that optimal point, the idea of criticizing a referee who does the right thing – whistling violations on the basis of the rules rather than the identities of the perpetrator or victim – makes zero sense. This is exactly what so many of us profess to want: less star treatment, more fairness.

This is also the fulfillment of my favorite rallying cry from those who bemoan late-game foul calls: letting the players decide the game. I have raged about this before, and I’m doing it again today because this subject makes me just that angry: The way to let players decide games that have rules is to enforce the rules of those games as exactly as possible. Officials who do everything in their power to do their jobs according to the letter of the law have allowed a basketball game to take place by forcing the participants to adhere to the rules of basketball. Those who refuse to make calls based on what the clock reads have allowed the contests they preside over to become anarchical zoos.

There are scores of playgrounds across the globe where you can watch (most likely free of charge) all the games you want that won’t be decided at the foul line or with a top scorer on the sideline.

In organized basketball, which includes the greatest leagues in the world, one player’s failure to conform to the established regulations will sometimes allow another to finish a game shooting free throws. And it would be remarkably disingenuous to have it any other way.


One last note on the complaints about late-game officiating: For the sake of full disclosure on my part, The NBA does have an explanation in its rulebook calling for a “higher degree of certainty” on the parts of officials at the end of games. I touched on this in my piece on the matter in June 2008, and my thoughts on that front haven’t changed:

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…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.

Please note that nowhere in the NBA’s explanation is there any suggestion that officials fail to enforce violations they are certain have occurred.


Inaugural D-Leaguer of Intrigue Orien Greene broke out with his best performance of the young season in Monday night’s Flash win over the Wizards, scoring 25 points on 10-for-12 shooting from the field and turning the ball over just four times, well short of his prior average of 5.2 turnovers per game (second only to Desmon Farmer). Every time I start to get too down on his play, he sucks me back in.

Until next time – when I promise to be cheerier – be sure to follow us on Twitter, and we’ll catch ya on the flip side.


  1. IP

    December 9, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    I mean….I just feel like in theory it’s cool to hope that every play will be judged without context…but I think even referees are suseptible to the electricity or passion of a moment. I don’t think whether its the D-League or the NBA affects this. If you’ve got a guy going off, playing well, and barely keeping his team in a game, you’re going to start sympathizing with him. So when that last foul comes along and it’s a check at the top of the key during a non-shooting action that did not end in a turnover, people are going to be angry. As much as Donaghy has tainted the game, before all that it was always a game of subjective regulation, not objective regulation…I don’t know if I would want it any other way.

  2. Pingback: Today’s Celtics Links 12/10 « Flceltsfan’s Weblog

  3. Dominic Schayer

    December 27, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    Thanks for the article. Very interesting. My family and I visit Memphis every summer. We go to Graceland, Beale Street, the Sun Studio, and then to the blues clubs for the evening. Always a good time!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *