Why the NBA Must Overhaul Its Officials or Face Its Doom

Alessandro MiglioFeatured ColumnistJune 3, 2013

"Did you see something? I thought I saw something."
"Did you see something? I thought I saw something."Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Officiating in sports will always come under fire. They are, after all, fallible human beings, but a necessary evil. The distaste over poor officiating would simply turn into blandness were we to turn sports into antiseptic theater ruled by robots.

Some sports suffer from poor officiating more than others, however, and the NBA might rule them all from that standpoint. 

When will the NBA have referees that don't want to be stars themselves?

— Brian Shaw (@nyshaw7) May 29, 2013

The problem with the rip-through move is that referees have started assuming the foul instead of looking for actual contact.

— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) May 5, 2013

Props to the referees for making this game unwatchable down the stretch. Really awful stuff. #Pacers #Heat

— Marlow Stern (@MarlowNYC) May 29, 2013

Why is that? This is a sentiment about NBA officiating as a whole, not some specific circumstances. Sometimes they stay out of the way, and the game is better for it. More often than not, however, referees interject themselves in a negative way.

The flopping epidemic—the contagion exists if social media is to believed, never mind it has been around forever—might be spurred on by such awful officiating. If referees cannot be trusted to get things right, why not exaggerate a play to hammer home a foul?

NBA players will not stop flopping until the NBA doubles the referees for each game. One assigned to each 1v1 matchup.

— Ian (@extrapointIan) May 29, 2013

Why is it that referees have increasingly come under fire in the NBA? Aside from the proliferation of the aforementioned social media and all the complaining it allows us to do, there is a palpable distaste for the growing incompetence among the so-called cream of the crop.

There has to be some reason other than seniority as to why guys like Joey Crawford, who is 61 years of age, are still running around the court trying to keep up with 10 über-athletic guys—well, unless you're Tyler Hansbrough or Kendrick Perkins, anyway—and keeping track of all the nuanced and frenetic action on the basketball court.

Or, put alternately: does anything about Joey Crawford scream "I know what I'm doing" to you?

— edsbs (@edsbs) May 29, 2013

"Terrible call" "Joey Crawford" and "David Stern" all trending in the US. Welcome to the NBA Playoffs.

— Jimmy Traina (@JimmyTraina) May 29, 2013

There must be a better way to determine whether referees are competent enough to face the rigors and challenges of basketball officiating. 

Are some of these referees even physically equipped to handle that load? At the risk of sounding ageist, the answer is no.

Take, for instance, this study about cognitive decline: 

A new study indicates that some aspects of peoples' cognitive skills — such as the ability to make rapid comparisons, remember unrelated information and detect relationships — peak at about the age of 22, and then begin a slow decline starting around age 27.

You hear that? Cognitive function begin to decline as early as 27. The average age of a active NBA referee is 46, per basketball-reference.com and basketball-refs.com.

Furthermore, the average age of officials in the playoffs grows with each passing round. During the first round it was 49, and it is now nearly 51 for the conference finals, nearly twice the age when brains begin their slow, sad march down hill according to one study. 

There are a myriad of studies that confirm common sense: our brains slow down with age. Most notably, reaction time,  short-term memory and "cognitive, sensory and motor processing speeds" rapidly decline as humans hit middle age, which begins around 39.

These are all quite important elements of a referee's abilities to do his or her job well. The NBA has become an increasingly athletic league, which means more split-second decisions to make and faster, more complex movement to keep track of throughout the course of a game. 

Are we employing officials that can keep up?

So Joey Crawford, from 40 feet away on the backside of the play, saw the foul that the ref 4 feet away in front of the play DIDN'T see.

— Peter Bukowski (@BukoTime) May 29, 2013

Crawford has been in the league since 1977. That is longer than many of you have lived, eons ago in the sports world. The game has changed, and Crawford has no doubt evolved as a result. But his skills and ability to properly officiate a game have also degraded, to the point where he has become a laughing stock among the public. 

Yet he is called upon to head a crew of officials in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Dick Bavetta, bless his heart, stepped onto the court in 1975 and has not missed a regular season game since. He is 73 years old and can probably run laps around my 30-year-old butt, but can we trust his impulses and snap judgment? 

Indeed, this has turned into quite the ageist rant. But this isn't my attempt to manufacture Soylent Green using NBA officials, but rather an attempt to understand the reason for a decline in quality of officiating. Age genuinely must have something to do with it.

There is no doubt experience plays a major role in this issue. The average age of a NBA official is not 46 simply because of seniority, though there is no doubt that is also a major part. It takes years to get anything right, and we want more experienced officials on the job.

But there has to be a point where experience and cognitive ability intersect.

Furthermore being a NBA official is not your typical job. They hold the integrity of the game in their hands, or at the tip of their whistles to be more precise. Is it so difficult to expect the NBA to employ officials with some sort of baseline competency, regardless of age?

What can be done about this?

Well, for starters, how about a comprehensive test of cognitive and physical abilities? If a NBA player can no longer keep up, he washes out of the league rather quickly. The test for this is simply performance. Once it is gone, so is the player.

There is clearly no such standard when it comes to their supposed arbiters on the court.

Of course, the National Basketball Referees Association (NBRA)—the union for the officials—might laugh in the face of such a proposal. These guys want to hang on to their jobs, naturally, and the threat of being pushed out because of deficiencies in their game would turn them hostile.

Basketball fans must push for some sort of accountability, however. The league is teetering on the precipice of irrelevance for a variety of reasons, some of which are predicated on horrible officiating.

Fans will tune out when referees take over a game. Players will continue to flop to catch the overloaded eyes of the officials. 

Something must be done.