Sports News Without Access, Favor, Or Discretion

What Happened To All The Interesting Refs?

Some guys.
Photo: AP

One of the nerdier things a basketball fan can do at 9 a.m. Eastern Weirdo Time is to go to the NBA website and glom onto the identities of the officials who will work whatever game interests you True, NBA ref nerddom is an exceedingly small subset of Nerdvania, but let a thousand sets of hipster glasses bloom.

Anyway, this morning’s search, what with it being Game 1 of the NBA Finals and all, revealed the names James Capers, John Goble, and Jason Phillips, and an overwhelming sense of blah-blah-blah-de-blah-meh came over my device of choice.

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Not because they are bad officials by the current standards, mind you. Someone who nerds out on officials far more than anyone else decided that they are three of the 12 best in the world, so whatever objections you might have on that front are summarily rejected on the grounds that, not being referee nerds, you know nothing about the subject.

But even fairly devout basketball fans look at those names and can barely make out what they look like, let alone how they work. This is not a compliment. The idea that the best official is the one you don’t notice is only a valid argument after the game; before and during it, you want to know what the hell they’re doing and how they do it. You don’t have to obsess about it, not if you plan to have friends and a potential mate, but part of the fun of the big game is getting granular about why something that looks like a block might actually be a charge, and why that Eurostep that started at the center court logo isn’t actually traveling.

So yes, you actually do want to know who and what you’re getting, officiating-wise, which is why (old coot alert) I miss the good old days of Joey Crawford and Earl Strom and Richie Powers and Hugh Evans and Jake O’Donnell—all guys who you knew by sight, knew their mannerisms, knew what they called and what they didn’t, and who looked at the end of the night like they’d worked harder than the players did.

They were strong-willed, they were not timid, and miraculously, the players liked them because they knew exactly what they were getting night in and night out. Plus, because the officials were (a) confident in what they were doing and (b) left largely to their own devices, they would talk with players rather than talk to them, and keep the wheels greased enough to make the game reach a conclusion without the customers throwing their seats.

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Plus, unlike one person we know (and quite possibly a few more; rumors will always abound), they weren’t throwing games.

But those days are gone. The veteran officials whose presence would soothe pregame anxieties (Danny Crawford, Monty McCutchen, Dick Bavetta, Bob Delaney) have essentially called it a career (or gone to work for the league), and they have been replaced by a largely faceless and much less satisfying group. I mean, who do you know by sight now? Scott Foster? Maybe. Ed Malloy? He’s a spinal cord with shoes, but otherwise invisible. Tony Brothers? Just on eyebrow power that would shame Anthony Davis, it’s a small possibility. David Guthrie? Not a chance. John Fullilove? He was a replacement ref for nine games during the 1995 officials lockout, and it’s just the best name ever so I threw it in and you were none the wiser.

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Instead, you get to see the backs of their heads as they peer into a television monitor making a bad situation slower at best, and worse at worst—or as you may refer to it, replay. Their invisibility condemns them as irrelevant, in a sport where personality drives all the metrics that fuel the 30 ATMs. The game wasn’t harmed by officials with personalities to go with their skills, such as they were, and now that almost none of them have any, it is easier to dismiss them as either incompetent, dishonest, or in the case of Delaney, a former undercover cop moonlighting between investigations.

(Oh, and for the record, your outrage at this theory, which will manifest itself in the comments, will be ignored; like most websites, Deadspin operates on the theory that if it wanted your opinions, it would have assigned them to you in advance.)

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Some folks advocate just having eyes in a studio making calls by remote control. Others think they should sit in the stands and not be on the floor at all. I think, though I’m not sure how he currently feels on the matter, Mark Cuban would be perfectly okay with robots. Hell, some young folks think the players should call their own fouls because, well, how could that ever go wrong?

In the meantime, everyone agrees that the officiating stinks because:

  1. Player empowerment made them less interested in learning how to mollify officials and more interested in how to muscle them into calls (see the Houston Rockets).
  2. The league office isn’t that keen on having the officials’ backs, lurching, to use but one example, between directives not to talk to the players, to talk to the players a little bit, to talk to them all day long and bring them energy bars as an in-game offering for past and future offenses.
  3. Officiating is a cruel pursuit because one’s knowledge advances as one’s ability to keep up diminishes, and the sweet spot when the two converge can be annoyingly small. The issue of youth vs. experience is a maddening one that has been addressed often by scholars in training to relatively little effect, because like it or not, officials who have been around awhile offer more familiarity and comfort to players than young guys in search of a rep.
  4. The rulebook is actually a series of suggestions that gets edited on the fly whenever a Giannis Antetokounmpo or James Harden comes along to torch the edges.
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To which your humble yet irksome author would add a fifth: Officials without a profile, like players without one, just aren’t as much fun. Chanting “Ref You Suck!” is never as much of a hoot as “Foster You Suck!” or the alternative for obscurity-obsessed basketball gasbags, “I hate Mike Callahan when he works our games because ... errrr, uhhhh, well, whose turn it is to buy the beer?”

Yes, this is a very small thing to notice when there are far more people wondering if Jeremy Lin will get any run in this series; nobody’s getting a tavern-inspired date based on knowledge of Eric Lewis’s proclivity for home teams not covering the spread in his games. And unlike most of you, I don’t care if a call is horrendously wrong. I’m all on the chaos train, I like seeing people yank off their own heads in exasperation, and I don’t believe in fair as something to strive for, because all of you don’t care about fair either—all you want is the result you want, and if it takes a horrible call to get it, you’ll sign up every time.

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Plus, and I say this with complete confidence. You’ll enjoy the sport longer and tell stories for years to come with a terrible call than a good one. Hey, Kings fans have been living off the 2002 Western Conference Finals for years now.

It is simply indisputable that more fun can be had if you can see an official and genuinely mean it when you say, “That guy kills us every time,” or “You’ve heard the Charlotte announcer screaming Malloy’s name in that audio clip, right?” or the much rarer “We’ve won 22 in a row with that guy. We’re home free, Chauncey.”

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So take your Capers/Goble/Phillips if you think that’s a good idea. Give me personalities with competence, because that combination is infinitely better than any official who has one but not the other. Or in some cases, neither.


Ray Ratto doesn’t really give that much of a damn about this subject, and only wrote it because he, like you, is sick to death of any topic that begins with the phrase “Kevin Durant.”

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