The Case for a Fourth Official

Game 3 of the NBA Finals was this past Tuesday, and Cleveland managed to win it to take the lead in the series. Game 2 was Sunday and resulted in the Cavs stealing home court advantage–3 games of the last five are in Cleveland. Both games were rife with story lines. On Sunday, Lebron earning a triple double while Curry went cold; the Cavs stepping up and playing great defense; the impact of Kyrie Irving’s absence. Wednesday’s game hallmarked the Warrior’s lack of a killer instinct and the win at all costs attitude from Cleveland. All stories with potential to lead the next day’s news. Instead, we saw games where the officials struggled. Multiple missed foul calls and questionable call decisions have drawn the ire of both teams. It has become clear to the players that it is impossible to predict how contact is going to be interpreted. Moreover, it wasn’t even the officiating that gets colored as “home cooking.” It was much worse.

Basketball needs a fourth official.

In the past 30 years, basketball players have only grown bigger and faster. The rules have been modified to increase the pace and scoring. The delineation among positions has blurred–big men can handle the basketball and shoot, and guards have learned to take it to the rack and post up. It really is a new world, and it shows no signs of slowing down or regressing. With crop after crop of talented young men coming up through the ranks of colleges like Kentucky, Duke, and UNC, there is reason to believe that the positional lines are only going to be further blurred as athletes get bigger, stronger, and faster. Moreover, there is legitimate pressure on the game to speed up play by facilitating scoring–read: cutting the shot clock time. So the game mechanics are going to speed up as well.

Officials are already severely outnumbered 10 to 3; compound this with the fact that officials have zones of jurisdiction called “primaries.” The lead official is under the basket and rotates with the ball, he has most action below the shoulders inside the arc on the side he is on, with his responsibility ending at roughly the middle of the lane. The center, or slot, official stands near the free throw line extended and has the long half of the court opposite the lead. The trail official is on the same side as the lead and has perimeter play and shots, he calls the fouls above the shoulders.

This assumes the officials don’t ball watch–which is the hardest thing ever.

Adding officials isn’t a novel idea. Hockey added a second referee for coverage. College football is moving to 8 field officials. Basketball is the hardest game to officiate as fouls are instantaneous, require impeccable judgment, and have zero margin for error since you can’t unblow a whistle. The stakes are too high to have these officials be as bad as they are.

Now, the remarks about the poor officiating should in no way suggest that I, or anyone else who isn’t an elite level basketball official, would do a better job. I have no doubt that these officials are the best officials in the world. You have to be an exceptional official throughout the season to even be an NBA postseason official. That said, the game has left the 3 man mechanics in its dust.

Since most of the action occurs inside the arc, adding a second lead official on the other side of the lane would help eliminate the blind spots. A fourth official would divvy the frontcourt into quadrants. The lead would no longer rotate across the lane, but instead would close down and move out with the ball. Meanwhile, the center and trail would move along the sideline to gain perspective depending on the situations and ball location.

The most important outcome from adding this official would be the addition of an extra set of eyes and the reduction of primary size. The less an official has to observe, the more attention that can be paid to what falls in the scope of their area. Additionally, by adding a low official on the opposite side, an angle that officials don’t often see would now be standard. Anytime you can reduce the number of times an official tells a coach, “I just didn’t have the angle,” you improve basketball.

Officiating in all sports is on trial these days. As technology has improved, it has become an incredible resource for us to use to get the calls right. Technology can only advance us so far before we have to make a change to manpower. As sports advance and the need for officials to protect the players intensifies, we will see more crossroads moments like these. As long as we can find a way to keep new officials comfortably out of the play, we should always consider adding to help maintain the integrity of the games. I get the feeling that the pressure on basketball will increase steadily until a change is made.

Hell, if superstars keep getting hacked or slide tackled by other superstars without calls, it won’t be long at all.

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