The Problem — Officially

“Come on, Ref!”

“Are you blind?!”

“That’s a foul!”

As an official, I have heard these, and many more—decidedly more colorful than what I can publish. Heckling like this is as common as it is unimaginative. Furthermore, officials, as a breed, tend to take pride in our ability to ignore the potshots from the crowd and the sideline. Officials have thick skin. However, there are certain psychologies at work in the mind of an official that may directly hinder the ability to be impartial. This season, it has been rather clear during Kentucky’s undefeated regular season run. The Cats get the calls. 

The reasons why are very interesting.

Basketball is far and away the hardest sport to officiate. It requires split-second decision making, constant evaluation of advantage/disadvantage, and regular repositioning to view your responsibility. Furthermore, what constitutes a foul on one type of player is often considered legal physical defense on another. Officiating middle school basketball is hard; college and professional basketball? Nearly impossible. Yet, the guys that put on the stripes for these tournaments do a fantastic job given the foregoing. Keep this in mind as we continue onward.

Like it or not, officials have biases—not in the traditional sense of wanting one team to win over the other, but biases still the same. Some are systemic, and some are dynamic and driven by the course of the game. These can be reduced to three basic types: presumed level of play, likeability of the coach—different from popularity, and home court. In the forthcoming illustrations, Kentucky is the example, but this easily applies to any elite team.

Level of Play

The Level of Play bias is a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Officials don’t live their lives in a vacuum. Maybe you’ve heard of Kentucky’s undefeated season—it would be impossible not to as ESPN has not shut up about it since they hit 20-0. With this in mind, it is nearly impossible to approach any game Kentucky plays in without the expectation that the Cats are going to win the game. This creates a mindset all its own, but when coupled with the fact that Kentucky is an excellent team in terms of skill, athleticism, and fundamentals, it creates a strong bias in favor of the better team. Officials afford more latitude to players from better teams as a subconscious reward for playing disciplined. Slight contact on the arm during post play? Incidental. Clearing out a defender for a rebound? Solid boxing out. 50/50 calls tend to slant toward the superior team as well. And, before they know it, teams like Kentucky are in the Bonus interval while still having six fouls to give. With the skill and intensity at this level, an equitable foul count should never be this lopsided.

But, the Cats get the calls.

Likeability of the Coach

Let’s get one thing straight, coaches who win have people who hate them. I know, I hate more than my fair share of coaches. Like others, I have my reasons which have nothing to do with the games they win, but if they weren’t winning games, I wouldn’t care about the coach—but I digress.

Take John Calipari for instance. Few coaches have enjoyed the same level of success, fewer still have been reviled to the same degree. The level of disdain for Calipari is on par with the level of disdain for Urban Meyer in football. And that’s quite the accomplishment. However, officials and coaches have an interesting relationship dyad. The relationship is prototypically love-hate. Officials need the coach’s help controlling the players—and by proxy, the game. Consequently, coaches need officials to keep the game orderly so that their teams have a fair chance to win. This relationship is, by nature, adversarial and oftentimes unfriendly. Basketball does not have coaches during games, it has lobbyists.

These “lobbyists” employ gamesmanship and other tactics to pursuade the officials to call more in favor of their team. On the face of it, these coaches appear to outside observers to be raving mad men, however, they all know the game and its rules very well. So, some of their appeals have substance and foundation. You hear it at all levels: “Watch the hold! He’s pushing my guy out of the way! That’s an illegal screen.”

Now, obviously, good officials are not expected to take a coach’s ranting and shouting as gospel. Officials do not call fouls based on a coach’s plea alone. On the other hand, the coaches’ complaints encourage the officials to pay closer attention to a player’s behavior or a matchup to make sure that nothing gets missed. This often results in fouls called in favor of the team with the complaining coach. Working officials like this has been around since time immemorial. It’s nothing new. 

Let’s circle back to Calipari. Something about his persona on the sideline must appeal to the game officials. He is one of the better coaches in the country at building rapport with the crew. Officials seem to like and respect Calipari enough to pay attention to what he asks for from time to time. This does nothing but help Kentucky basketball, especially when a charismatic coach like Calipari is paired with a surly codger the likes of Jim Boeheim. Jerk coaches are easy to ignore, and their pleas for calls fall on deaf ears. But, for coaches willing to play the game, the benefits of working the officials translate into a very real advantage for the team on the floor. Fouls happen all the time, having officials call more for your team than the opponent is useful in basketball. 

Again, Cats get the calls.

Home Court Advantage

This is not a new advantage—just ask Vegas. Home field in football is worth about three free points to the home team. In basketball, it’s a little more complicated, but teams like the Kentuckys and the Dukes, who are a terror to play at home, enjoy the benefits of home fans. Heck, Kentucky enjoys home court advantage just about anywhere they play. They’re the Yankees of college basketball. 

How does this advantage relate to officiating? Well, it’s undeniable that opposing players are hurt and home players helped by a rowdy crowd. However, officials are impacted in a different way. Officials are taught early to make a call and sell it: better to sell a call that upsets half the players, than to undercommit to a call and upset all the players. This, for the most part, is true. This mantra ignores the environment, and that’s a problem.

When officials make calls against the home team, they draw the ire of 50,000+ people. Conversely, calls against the opponent cause those same 50,000 to cheer and drown out the boos from the smaller contingent of visiting fans, players, and coaches. This positively reinforces calls in favor of the home team, because no one likes to be yelled out. Foul on the visitor? Thunderous applause. Foul on the home team? Murderous mob rage. Fans in general do not directly impact the calls, but the overall atmosphere has a tendency to slant the calls in favor of the home team. Officials are people, and no person wants to anger a mob of 50,000. Especially if Ashley Judd is leading said mob. She’s a very scary fan.

Cats get the calls.

Now, this is not to say that the officials generally do a poor job and are subject to being influenced by which way the wind blows. These are men and women of principle who have taken on the mantle of a custodian of the game as we know it. They are underappreciated, and taken for granted. In fact, if the game ever becomes about an official and their call, they screwed up. The game is about the players and the skill involved to play it. Yes, some calls come at pivotal times, but officials should play a background role. Still, officiating basketball is very difficult, and bias can creep in subconsciously due to any of the factors listed above. And these biases are slight, but with the skill involved, a slight edge is all that’s needed.

On the bright side, however, the NCAA tournament pits the best against the best at fairly neutral sites. Further, the best officials from around the country are selected to call the games. Calls will still be missed, and fans will still get upset. However, the NCAA nearly bends over backwards to minimize the familiarity officials have with the teams. It’s incredibly unlikely that we’ll see any SEC officials on Kentucky games—the same goes for ACC crews and Duke/UNC. At the end of the tournament, the best team will cut down the nets, and it will not be because the tournament officials put them there. I expect the highest quality officiating of the year, and that skill will prevail. 

I’m hoping, at very least, that:

The Cats don’t get the calls.

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