Replacement Refs: Do You Care?
Posted by Zach Lowe on Sep 24, 2009
Some of the more hysterical commentary about the specter of replacement referees (“The league will be out of control! There will be blood!”), much of it coming from the referees union, reminds me of one of my favorite excerpts from Loose Balls, Terry Pluto’s exceptional, absolutely must-read oral history of the ABA. In the book, several ABA players and coaches talk about the huge difference between the inexperienced officials who went straight to the ABA and the veteran refs the league poached from the NBA. The ABA was a nasty league in its early years, and some blamed the nastiness on the newbie refs’ inability to control games.
Here’s Max Williams, a coach of the Dallas franchise, discussing his attempt to get a crew of the newer refs to whistle him for a technical in a game against the Virginia Squires:
I decided to run on the court to get a technical, but they wouldn’t hit me with one. On one play, Virginia took the ball out in front of my bench; I still wanted a technical, so I went out on the court to guard the Virginia player taking the ball out-of-bounds. Still no technical. All the officials did was blow the whistle and take the ball to the other side of the court, away from my bench, and give it to Virginia.
If you listen to the refs union, this lack of control will ruin the NBA if the league doesn’t fork over the $700,000 separating the two sides. (Side note about money: Did you know the replacement refs will make $1,100 per game—and that figure represents just one-third of what a regular ref earns, according to FanHouse’s Tim Povtak, who has been all over this story. So you’re telling me refs get paid $3,300 for each game they work? They are billing at the hourly rate of a big-time law firm partner! I’m not saying the salary is out of line. I’m just saying it’s more than I’d have ever guessed).
You’ve all heard the alleged horror stories from the 1995 season, when the league used replacements during a brief lockout. Chris Webber got hurt in a fight. Shaq needed surgery after an ultra-hard foul from Matt Geiger (!). More than $200,000 in fines and 29 player games lost to suspensions in just a month.
Even worse, the refereeing was bad! Appalling! That’s what the players thought, anyway, according to this piece in the New York Times. “They need five of these guys to equal one of the regular refs,” Charles Oakley said back then, according to the NYT.
You know what? I have no idea if the officiating actually deteriorated during that month. I suspect it did a little, since the league used only 41 refs working in two-man crews, down from the normal 60 divided into three-man outfits, according to the NYT. That’s bad.
But I’m fairly confident that whatever happened in 1995 isn’t relevant now. In 1995, we had 41 refs scraped together from the CBA and pro-am leagues, according to the NYT. Now we’re going to get a full complement of 60 refs, mostly from the D-League and the WNBA, meaning the NBA has been watching them for years.
Don’t believe me? Read this TrueHoop piece from Kevin Arnovitz, who spent part of the Vegas Summer League sitting in the stands with NBA executives whose entire job is to analyze the D-League refs toiling at summer league in hopes of winning an NBA job. And a bunch of those summer league refs are there just trying to win a job in the D-League.
And the Overlords of the Officials study everything—the position of each official, the authority with which they make calls, how they interact with players. As Henry Abbott wrote here, some refs spend five or six years in the D-League before earning a promotion to the NBA or the WNBA.
My point: These guys aren’t hacks. They might be slightly more likely to feel intimidated by big name players, and, as Robert Horry told Howard Beck of the NYT, they will not know the individual tendencies of each player—how they move around the basket, how they set picks, etc. But they’re not going to be hacks.
And there’s some question as to whether the replacement refs in ’95 were hacks anyway. One contributor at CelticsBlog watched tape of a few games from the Replacement Month and concluded that the officiating “didn’t seem all that bad.”
The power of perception is amazing. Players and coaches are predisposed to think officials are bad at their jobs without having much basis for that opinion. But if a collective bargaining stalemate gives the players an actual piece of evidence to back up the conclusion they’ve already jumped to—These guys are scabs! Of course they’re bad!—then the perception will become deeper until it transforms into orthodoxy.
That’s why I found it very interesting to read the NBA’s refutation of the union’s statistical argument that suspensions and fines soared in that replacement month. Half of the 29 games lost due to suspension resulted from players leaving the bench—and not fighting—during a brawl between the Pacers and Kings. And players were suspended for 24 games in the final two months of the ’95-96, with the regular refs on duty.
The union’s doom and gloom argument is silly, and it’s not going to pan out. Ditto for another extreme argument, one the NBA won’t make publicly—at least not directly—but one the league is probably happy to have others make for it: That the replacement refs will be just as good, or better, than the “real” ones, proving the regular refs are incompetent, biased or even corrupt.
They’re not. OK, some of them are. Bill Kennedy’s goading of Doc Rivers was disgraceful. Joey Crawford’s strange bias against Tim Duncan is unacceptable. Tim Donaghy was a crook, and he exchanged lots and lots of phone calls with fellow ref Scott Foster. It would probably be good to force a few bad apples out of the league.
But we’re not going to see any sudden wave of exceptional officiating with the new guys. And we’re not going to see players attacking each other with steel chairs, either. The officiating will be fine—to the degree that it can ever be fine—and the league will go on. That’s why the NBA can dig in and fight over $700,000 just to make a point.