Pop quiz: Which major American sports league enacted a new rule on Wednesday that threatened to punish its players on misleading referees?
Answer: The NBA.
It’s disgusting that the NBA had to make a new rule to address flopping, but it proves how basketball referees have a larger influence over the outcome of a game than any other sport.
Basketball is the most difficult team sport to officiate, period.
Considering how quick the pace of basketball games is, NBA officials have the hardest jobs to make immediate judgments. Many rules, especially when it comes to judging what a foul is and isn’t, are subjective.
Even though there are three referees on the court at the same with each focusing a zone on the floor, those officials’ seeing angles are often obstructed, and most don’t help their fellow referee if they miss a call on their end.
The stakes get even higher in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter when the two teams playing are battling for leverage.
A bad foul call early in the fourth can put the other team closer to the free-throw bonus.
When a ball handler collides with a defender, a call between a blocking or offensive foul can likely shift the game’s momentum to whichever team benefits.
Teams are forced to revise their game plan on the fly whenever a key player is close to fouling out after six fouls, and their opponents try to attack that same player in danger to draw more fouls.
Teams have shown that their aggressiveness can die down if they notice the referees have been officiating the game tightly or in favor of their opponents.
Oh, and referees can’t review and overturn hardly any of their split-second decisions.
Players look to the zebras all the time in critical moments. For instance, in Game 3 of the second round between the Dallas Mavericks and the Denver Nuggets in the 2009 NBA Playoffs, the Mavericks’ Antoine Wright tried to foul the Nuggets’ Carmelo Anthony with 6.5 seconds left in the game. Denver was down 105-103 and Dallas needed to commit a non-shooting foul to prevent a 3-point attempt, but the officials neglected to call Wright’s bump on Anthony as a foul.
Anthony ended up hitting the game-winning 3-pointer seconds after the bump happened. Denver eventually won the series 4-2 to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
Had the referees honored the foul on the spot, Dallas would’ve forced Denver to take a quicker and tougher shot, and likely would have won not only the game, but force the series into a tie.
It’s that easy for the officials to completely change the game, and situations like that happen all the time in the league.
This explains why NBA players resort to flopping more than any other type of athletes, except soccer players. Since the officials have such a large impact, it makes sense that players sell calls to the referees as part of their strategy.
Let’s also not forget about the officials’ history of corruption.
Former NBA official Tim Donaghy was found guilty in 2007 of fixing numerous games in his 13-year career, notably for ones he had placed bets on. After getting caught, Donaghy told attorneys that Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals was heavily fixed by the three assigned referees. The Los Angeles Lakers had attempted 40 free throws (27 in the fourth quarter), while the Sacramento Kings shot just 25 (9 in the fourth). Fans often reference that game as evidence to support claims that the league is rigged.
Donaghy said that many referees, like Dick Bavetta, have their own agendas when it comes to calling games.
“I learned that (Bavetta) likes to keep games close, and that when a team gets down by double-digit points, he helps the players save face,” Donaghy wrote in his unreleased book, “Blowing the Whistle.” “He accomplishes this act of mercy by quietly, and frequently, blowing the whistle on the team that’s having the better night. Team fouls suddenly become one-sided between the contestants, and the score begins to tighten up.”
Which other sports allow their referees to have a larger impact on matches than the NBA’s have?
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Read Mitch Terrell’s original point here.