Personnel Foul
Fixing the NBA's Refs


July 29, 2007

As the Tim Donaghy scandal roared through the sports world, it drew a variety of public responses. David Stern held a press conference looking appropriately distraught, composed, weary, and humbled (by David Stern standards). Ideas poured in from sportswriters and fans alike for improving the likelihood of catching a tainted ref and decreasing the odds (pardon the poor choice of words) of having a ref on the take. Most of these ideas were fatally flawed and ignored the root problem: NBA referees just haven’t been doing a very good job. We’ll first look at the ideas thrown out there and see what useful pieces can be taken from them, and then try to fit the pieces together to solve the NBA refereeing puzzle.


Make the referees accessible to the media


Some in the media have let their egos run wild and decided that sportswriters would root out all evil in sports if only they could talk to the principles involved. If only the media had been allowed to vet Donaghy, they cry, he would’ve never gotten away with it as long as he did. This claim has no basis in reality. The media had plenty of access to Mike Vick, yet they knew nothing about him allegedly being a major figure in the dog fighting underworld. The media had plenty of access to baseball players and glorified them, not saying a word about the decades of steroid use until it was brought to light by government investigations and confessions by former players.


In summary:

-         Mike Vick as dog fighting kingpin: unearthed by the federal government

-         Steroid use in baseball: the feds

-         NBA ref under mob control: the feds

-         Alex Rodriguez’ attraction to manly female strippers: the media


The sports media isn’t good at investigative reporting. It’s just not in the nature of sports reporting to be trying to break scandals before even the government gets wind of the situation. Until recent decades, the sports media did not cover athletes’ off field indiscretions, and to this day the off field concerns don’t stretch further than players’ personal relationships and arrests.


If refs had post game press conferences, they’d just be inundated with beat writers asking about particular calls, mostly asking why the home team didn’t get call X or Y. The odds of a crooked ref being dumb enough to be tripped up by this questioning are very small.


The valid take-aways from this idea are that refs shouldn’t be beyond public questioning and should have to answer for particularly odd calls. NBA players and coaches should not be automatically fined for questioning refereeing. Making refs available to the media may give fans more confidence in decisions when they hear explanations from the referees themselves, but having this be a game after game occurrence will serve little purpose. If there is a particularly controversial call, especially in a playoff game, the league should make refs available if only to satiate fans and make the refereeing process more transparent. This will do nothing to prevent another mob controlled referee, but would be a step toward better refereed games and more public acceptance of calls.


Pay the referees more money


The proponents of this idea would like to think that you can price out bookies and the mob. They also like to throw out the theory that today’s pro athletes would never throw a game for gambling purposes because they have too much money.


The problem is that those with a gambling addiction can blow through any amount of money. This goes for people who are simply bad at managing money as well. An extreme case of the latter is Mike Tyson, who has made over $100,000,000 in his career and has virtually nothing left. If referees were paid more, those with gambling issues would just place larger bets and end up in even more debt.


Besides, it’s not like these guys are poor. As Stern pointed out, Donaghy made $260,000 last year. That’s not a player’s salary, but it still puts Donaghy in the top few percent of Americans.


Raising salaries may not be a bad idea, but only if the salary increases are aimed at infusing talent into the refereeing pipeline. The NBA referee lifestyle is not an easy one. It requires a lot of travel during the season and constant criticism from thousands of drunken partisans, not to mention the angry millionaires who you are charged with keeping under control. At best, you do a great job and no one publicly notices. At worst, your failures are replayed and ridiculed continuously worldwide. The starting salary for a rookie ref is around $90,000. That may need to increase substantially if the league wants to improve the quality of its referees, but would need to increase nearly infinitely if the league wants to guarantee that refs have too much money to accrue gambling debt.


Eliminate fouling out


This idea has been sporadically pushed over the years, most notably by Pete Newell back in the 1980s after the NBA’s last gambling scandal involving a timekeeper. The idea is that a ref can greatly impact a game simply by calling a few fouls on a star player. As the NBA is the only major pro sports league in which a player can foul out, teams will bench a player who has a lot of fouls early in the game in order to assure the player’s availability late in the game. If this power were to be taken from a referee (and instead, each foul a player commits beyond his 5th would include some harsher punishment like 2 free throws and possession for the other team) then refs would have less ability to control the outcome of the game. This type of rule was in place in NBA summer leagues (except with the first extra penalty foul being the 10th instead of the 6th) until this summer, mostly because summer leagues tend to have ragged refereeing and the league didn’t want that to limit young players’ playing time and development.


The biggest problem with this is that it does nothing to prevent a Donaghy situation. Donaghy’s shady refereeing is alleged to consist of controlling games to influence the over/under, not the actual result of the game. This means that Donaghy would call more fouls (and thus award more free throws) if the mob had bet on the over. Changing the rules this way does nothing to prevent this activity and actually makes it easier for a crooked ref to control the game scoring total (the extra penalty replacing fouling out creates more points if the ref calls a foul on a player who has already been called for 5 or more fouls). The mob doesn’t particularly care which team wins the game as long as they themselves win their bet. This proposed rule change is basically a show of no confidence in referees and doesn’t address the crooked ref issue.


The other problem with this idea is that such a rule change would fundamentally alter the game of basketball. Depth and bench strength would be mostly useless as teams would have no reason to take out a starter unless he was tired. Players would gamble more on defense and play more physically, knowing that there is nothing to worry about with regard to fouls. It would pretty much turn into soccer in the sense that fouls are pretty meaningless unless you really hit someone hard and get a flagrant (yellow card in soccer) or get tossed (red card). Imagine if a guy like Shaq could foul to his heart’s content with no worry of charging calls or defensive fouls sending him to the bench.


Another minor concern is that the international rules and college rules would not change just because the NBA makes a change, which would make it harder for incoming players to transition to the NBA and for NBA players to transition to the international game for the Olympics and other competitions.


With quality consistent refereeing, it’d be on the players to know their personal foul situation and to alter their play accordingly. This has been a tenant of organized basketball the entire modern era and it should take more than just a crooked referee to change something so fundamental to the game.

Keep Referee Crews Together


This is perhaps the best of the main stream ideas in terms of preventing corrupt refereeing. The current NBA system ends up mixing and matching crews on seemingly a game by game basis. If refs worked together in the same 3 man (note to the PC police: this is not a sexist term but merely a nod to common usage, and Violet Palmer should’ve been fired years ago anyway) crews on a regular basis and one ref became tainted, the other two may be familiar enough with the now-crooked ref to detect the change.


It could be argued that by keeping crews together the NBA would bring in the possibility of an entire crew being corrupted and being harder to detect because they wouldn’t have to work with clean refs. However, keeping referee crews together doesn’t mean that they never work with other refs, just that they work with each other for the bulk of their games. Additionally, it is much harder to buy an entire three man referee crew than to get one troubled ref. Also, the more people that are in on a conspiracy, the harder it is to keep quiet.


In addition to the potential for better fraudulent refereeing detection, this system would likely lead to better refereeing in general. Each crew member would get comfortable with his crewmates and learn what they look for and how they position themselves and adjust accordingly, leading to more consistency and, hopefully, accuracy of calls. The league could assign new refs to work on a crew with elite and experienced refs who could take the new guys under their wings and provide a mentoring system.


The Real Solution


The real solution to the NBA’s problem (and really, it’s not just an NBA problem but a sports-wide issue – several major soccer leagues have been hit and it’s fairly likely that there have been tainted refs in other major American professional sports) is to have better and more consistent refereeing. Basketball is arguably the hardest sport to referee, but that doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable for NBA officiating to be a source of jokes, frustration, and conspiracy theories (even before the Donaghy situation went public). Many others have pointed out that it was telling that when people heard that an NBA ref was under mob control, the reaction of the basketball public was not shock at the possibility but rather curiosity as to which ref it was. In true ironic American fashion, there were undoubtedly office pools for betting on which NBA referee was being investigated for gambling, aiding gambling, and altering games. My personal telling moment came when I heard Stern’s press conference and found out that one of the charges against Donaghy was that he provided information to the mob, likely information regarding refereeing schedules. The fact that knowing which referees are assigned to which games is highly valuable information to gamblers is a major sign that there is far more wrong in the NBA refereeing world than Tim Donaghy.


The first step toward better refereeing is re-educating the current refs on the rules and how they should be applied and then forcing them to apply these rules evenly to all players. This means no more rookie hazing and no more star calls. The rules should apply the same to all players, regardless of what it says on the front or back of their jerseys. I don’t care what kind of endorsement deals Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade have, they shouldn’t be treated any differently than other players. Take a look at which NBA stars struggle in international competition – it’s often the guys who are used to being bailed out by the NBA refs based on their Nike contracts.


The second step is a continuation of the first – dedication to the game plan. I know from personal experience that people will resist changes management makes, especially when they run counter to what has always been the case and if management has had many short lived and half-hearted attempts at change in the past. There has to be a commitment to this new equality philosophy. Referees are human and there will be some differences from ref to ref, but on the whole the same play should be called the same way by every ref the vast majority of the time regardless of who is involved. This may be troublesome due to the referee union, but pay raises and playoff assignments should be awarded on the merit of the referee and not simply on tenure.


The third step is recruiting. Stern and company have to imagine that they are a new coach coming into a storied college program that has been mediocre in recent years. They have all the resources in the world but they need to pull more and better talent. Recruit worldwide. Raise the salary and incentives for referees (think Alabama boosters aren’t out there delivering cash-filled suitcases around the nation to help Nick Saban’s recruiting efforts as he rebuilds?). Start referee academies and get younger people to commit to the profession who otherwise may go into something else like law or business. Do whatever it takes to draw more talented individuals into the profession, develop them, and keep them.  


Surrounding these steps should be a campaign to put to rest the conspiracy theories and rebuild public trust. The only way to do that is transparency. Make the referee reviews public. They’re purely based on things from watching game films anyway, and those games are available to the public so it’s not like you’re giving out private information about employee performance. Make referee schedules public earlier and see if the betting lines move (on a tangent, Vegas is one of the NBA’s best resources in any fight against gambling-based corruption as Vegas stands to lose lots of money when games are tainted – thus having lots of motivation to stop such occurrences – and has much more expertise than the league does on gambling matters). If they do, clearly you have work to do. Invite a few media members to embed themselves in the referee review process (as the NBA did a few years ago with their draft lottery process to alleviate fears that it was rigged) and allow them to make the process public (off course you’re allowed to edit out sensitive information, but don’t try to make them write PR brochures for you). Stern said he will do whatever it takes to ensure another Donaghy situation doesn’t happen to the NBA, and I do believe him when he says it, but he’d be wise to announce to the world what steps the league will take and have some public follow-up to report on the success of the measures.


The Donaghy situation was a terrible shock to the NBA, but hopefully it will be one that leads to positive change. The NBA is at a crossroads. The league can try to sweep this situation under the rug, make some security changes and initiate a PR blitz or it can finally address the real problem it’s had for years – the declining quality of refereeing, which has reached the point that a referee under mob control was actually one of the higher rated referees in the league. Maybe when Stern says he will seek expert guidance, he’s saying that he’ll ask the mob how to improve his lousy referees and make an easy buck at the same time.



comments? email us at