NBA league statements on missed calls could create unintended consequences

This season the NBA league office has released several statements acknowledging plays where they believe the officials made mistakes late in games that could have had an impact on their outcomes.

That includes one statement on Wednesday where they called out the officials (not by name) who missed a very difficult goaltending call in Tuesday’s Golden State-Dallas game that had huge implications for both teams fighting it out for playoff spots. Below is a screenshot of the statement posted on NBA.com.

NBA_statement_on_GSW-DAL-goaltend

These efforts by the league have been applauded by many that publicly acknowledging these mistakes is good in high stake games like these, all under the guise of further transparency, along with a few other efforts like recently releasing internal memos the league office has sent to NBA teams this season.

I appreciate what the league is trying to do when the officials get a call wrong, but these statements tend to just say, “The refs were wrong,” rather than discuss how some of these problems might be addressed in the future.


For example, in the statement for the Warriors-Mavericks game, the last sentence says, “the play was not reviewable.” I trusted that interpretation at first, but I started asking myself why the play wasn’t reviewable since I remember officials using video to review goaltending plays before. So I decided to check the rulebook (which I’ve done many times on other controversial plays) to get the definitive answer.

It turns out there are multiple triggers that allow officials to use video replay to resolve plays. Below is the criteria for goaltending, introduced by the phrase, “Instant replay would be triggered in the following situations:”

Replay_triggers_for_goaltends

This made me think the league office was contradicting itself from its earlier statement that the play “was not reviewable” when it actually was. If it was reviewable, then the refs blew their chance to review this play that the league later acknowledged was goaltending. For what it’s worth, I’ve watched that replay multiple times in slow motion, and it’s difficult to tell even then if it was goaltending or not.

So what’s going on here? Why the apparent contradiction between the league statement and the rulebook? The play occurred around the 16-second mark of overtime, which made it eligible for video review.

Well, probably a very high percentage of you who read the criteria above interpreted the phrase “was called correctly” the same as being “was decided correctly.” If the officials “are not reasonably certain” about a play, then they could review it, right?

Wrong. After communicating with a league spokesman, the operative word is “called.” They are basically saying that an official has to make a call, even if they aren’t sure, in order to review it using replay. I think their focusing on the word “called” is too restrictive when most people interpret a “call” as being the decision by an official if a violation occurred or not. The point is to “get the call right,” which we’ve heard many times before, but does that now mean you have to make a call even when you know you may be wrong just to make it eligible for video review?

If so, this seems a little silly, and is problematic for obvious reasons.

First, now that the league is publicly making statements when officials sometimes get a call wrong in high-profile situations, referees could be more motivated to err on the side of caution and blow their whistle on even the most obvious of possible goaltending plays so they can review video of it in the last two minutes or in overtime. I am a big proponent of getting calls right at almost any cost, but I have to admit that I’m even getting concerned about all the stoppages in play to look at all the things that are so obvious that shouldn’t require video review. I’ve heard many NBA announcers like Jeff Van Gundy lamenting the same.

Second, making a “call” when you aren’t sure contradicts what officials are seemingly trained to do for almost every other call – to NOT jump to conclusions and to only blow the whistle when they are sure. That’s the case for the majority of violations, most notably shooting and personal fouls, which make up the bulk of most violations called in a game. Now with cases where video review is acceptable like this goaltending play, the officials are being incentivized to change their mindset and blow their whistle when they’re NOT sure.

This obviously creates problems. The league and/or critics might say, “They should just call a violation so they can review it.” But it doesn’t sound that easy for officials to rewire their brains like this. It also doesn’t make sense because it’s kind of a warped way for referees to game the system to get help.

It’s like how today officials have to call a flagrant foul on the floor in order to review video replay of a hard foul. It’s sort of become a running joke that the officials have to overcharge a player with at least a flagrant foul in order to review video of the play. Why not just say, “We’re not sure. It’s at least a personal foul or shooting foul, but we might need to upgrade it to a Flagrant 1 or Flagrant 2, so let’s review the video to see.”

Back to the goaltending play…so instead of being forced to call a goaltend when the officials aren’t sure, I propose they should just be able to blow the whistle to stop a play without making an immediate decision as they are expected with other calls, confer with the other officials to make a “call on the floor” (which is necessary in case the video is inconclusive), then step over to the scorer’s table to review the video like they do now.

Hence, the league’s interpretation of the requirement of a “call” needing to be made in order to review it with video, and what I’m proposing here, are actually pretty similar. But the league saying that the play “was not reviewable” kind of confuses things. It would have been reviewable if the refs had blown their whistle because they were in overtime. I would argue that’s what most people consider the main criteria for reviewing a play — if it’s a violation that’s listed in the rulebook as reviewable, and if the play has occurred in the last two minutes or in OT. After a whistle had been blown, the officials could have quickly convened, made a preliminary decision on if it was goaltending or not, then go to video replay to resolve it.

The difference in how the league interprets a “call” and how I’m suggesting is if the officials understand it’s okay for them to blow their whistle even 2-3 seconds after they THINK a violation occurred to stop play without the pressure of calling something right away. It’s kind of like what they already are doing with shots taken right when the 24-second shot clock goes off: they don’t seem to be making an immediate ruling if the shot was released before the buzzer; sometimes a few seconds seems to elapse. There’s not as much pressure for them to make their ruling in a nanosecond, and that’s okay.

Right now for goaltending, it’s like, “If I don’t call a violation within a second like the other violations, I’m going to look like a complete idiot.” So on many occasions when they aren’t sure, they won’t blow their whistle. I think that’s what happened in the Golden State-Dallas game. Sometimes these violations are very difficult to discern within one second like we’re accustomed to seeing with other violations. They are trying to get the call right all within one second (which can be very difficult to do on a play like this one), and not thinking, “What can I do to get this to video replay?” It’s just not natural. So often times they won’t call it, and that’s what happened in this game when 3 different referees didn’t blow their whistle.

Take for example when a ball goes off a player in the last two minutes of a game, and the officials aren’t sure who touched it last. They don’t have to decide right away which player touched the ball last, or even decide they are going to use video replay. Often times you will see them huddle up, talk about it, make their call, then go to the replay if it’s needed. Why not do the same for potential goaltending plays instead of forcing one of the refs to go out on a limb to make some kind of call? We know this isn’t human nature in tight, late game situations any because “omission bias” can kick in. Omission bias can occur when referees feel it’s safer to not make a call that isn’t perceived to decide the outcome of a game as much (when it actually could), rather than making a call that everyone perceives as playing a bigger part in the game’s outcome.

Finally, by the league making public statements in which they tell the whole world the officials were wrong (but without explaining what can be done procedurally to help fix it in the future), the chances are high that most officials are going to play it safe and call goaltending violations much more often to avoid any potential public humiliation, even when it’s obvious no goaltending occurred. This could slow down the game and break up the game’s flow even further. And it might start resulting in more goaltending calls creeping beyond last two minutes of a game when they aren’t warranted and when video review can’t be used because the officials have been conditioned to blow their whistle right away in the last two minutes or in OT.

An example of referees changing their behavior after being called out publicly might have occurred earlier this season when the league came out with a statement acknowledging that a foul should have been called by the officials in the Dallas-New Orleans game when Austin Rivers was fouled by Monta Ellis, but the officials didn’t call it.

Well, one of the refs in this game who didn’t make that call ended up calling a very questionable shooting foul at the end of his very next game when it didn’t look like a foul occurred from the Knicks’ Kenyon Martin on the Suns’ Leandro Barbosa (video clip here). In essence, this official may have overreacted from being admonished after the Dallas game and his subconscious was saying, “It’s more safe to call a foul since the league probably won’t call me out on it if I’m wrong.” And they didn’t.

I know it’s just one example, but these kinds of statements from the league saying that referees should have called a foul or violation can result in overcompensation by the referees to call more violations since they may think they aren’t going to be called out if they get it wrong. And so far, there’s some truth in the league emphasizing wrong “non-calls” than wrong calls. In the four statements issued by the league on officials’ mistakes this season (I believe four is the total thus far), all four have been for non-calls for violations that should have been called. This can contribute to officials thinking there will be less public reprimand for calls they get wrong than non-calls they get wrong, resulting in more violations being called that are wrong.

One odd factoid: three of the four games have involved Dallas, and two of the plays have involved Monta Ellis.

I can only imagine what the officials are saying behind closed door among themselves when these public league statements are released. This has to be disruptive to what they’ve been accustomed to seeing. That may not be a bad thing, but we all know when you have employees who feel they are being slighted by the bosses more publicly, morale can take a hit, which can also have unintended consequences.

In closing, we are all for more transparency on officiating. The league has taken some great steps acknowledging actual plays where the referees messed up, but they should also be addressing what they will need to address it, like rule changes or whatever. Otherwise it will just look like they are throwing the officials under the proverbial bus. They should be careful that since officials are human, they may start overcompensating with assessments that leaves them less likely to be placed in the public spotlight, but might also reduce the quality of the officiating – and the game itself — over the long term.

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