Wednesday, April 7, 2010

When the Adjudicator Gets It Wrong

The NBA today took the unusual step of announcing that referees erred in not calling a foul against Utah's C.J. Miles on the last play of last night's wild Jazz-Thunder game. A foul call would have given Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, down one point, three free throws to potentially win the game. You can review the play below by fast-forwarding to the 1:50 mark of the video (and see the slow-motion replay at 2:07):

I have two thoughts in response to this incident. First, a frequent theme here at JPO has been our revulsion over the inconsistency of foul calls in the NBA, particularly late in the fourth quarter and when star players are involved. (The epitome of this failing, of course, was the original "JPO" play in 1998.) In this Miles-Durant tiff, the duskiness of the timing suggests that I should want to see a foul called, yet the brightness of Durant's renown favors a bias to see Durant not get bailed out. Thus, emotionally, I am not sure how to view either last night's result or the NBA's communication today. Watching the video, it seemed like Miles swiped part ball and part skin, though it would be very difficult to notice that in real time on the floor. So perhaps I should be upset that the referees "swallowed their whistle" in the game's final second, regardless of the identity of the shooter.

My second thought, more analytically, is puzzlement at the NBA's decision to publicly overrule their referees. The NBA rulebook is a body of law. Here in our common-law American domain, law is administered and enforced by a panoply of police, executive bureaucrats, judges, and juries. Law is often thought to be grindingly slow. Accused criminals sometimes languish in detention for months or years while their case is advanced; the "Enron" bankruptcy case lasted over seven years. Law is complicated, and, apparently, our society has decided that we prefer to "get it right" rather than "do it fast" — even if that means financial disputes remain unresolved for ages and people's freedom is abridged. Additionally, criminal and civil litigants are allowed two levels of appellate review should they be dissatisfied with an original decision.

However, the NBA cannot afford such deliberation. By contrast to public law, NBA rules are administered by three referees alone. Games are unique events that depend on the physical presence of two sets of players under particular environmental conditions. Games cannot be tabled, postponed, or repeated! Thus, appellate review is extremely limited. Certain decisions may be reviewed by referees (the same agents who originally made such decisions) by video during the course of the game, but no higher power may intervene and game outcomes are final once completed. [On extremely rare occasions, Commissioner Stern has the sole authority to grant a re-play in the event of "gross negligence" relating to an objectively documentable mis-application of a game rule. This happened most recently in 2007-08, involving Atlanta and Miami. Prior to that, it had not occurred since Stern took over the league in 1984.]

I write the above two paragraphs to point out that what's done is done. Without appellate review, the NBA really should stand behind its referees to reinforce the psychic finality of disputed finishes. I don't see the public value in overruling a referee. The announcement is moot, so why embarrass him? A Supreme Court justice could shrug her shoulders and say "Yeah, those trial judges screw up sometimes, but that's all right." The public will understand, because decisions ain't over after the trial verdict. But when NBA games are final, an admission of fallibility only frustrates fans. Why do that? The foul call was ambiguous enough that some viewers of the video might "see" whatever the league tells them to. (Have you ever noticed that a pro wrestling match looks a whole lot faker when you turn off the announcers' audio?) To be sure, the league should do all it can behind the scenes to adequately train officials, but in front of the press it should try whatever is necessary (without straining credulity) to persuade fans of referee competence. Even if Commissioner Stern truly laments his refs' failure to call the foul on Miles last night, he should make like President George W. Bush and decline to admit his mistakes.

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