This month, ESPN has been awash in advertisements for the NBA Finals and the World Cup. Those ads highlighted the pageantry and spectacle of historic rivalries and top-level competition that each of those tournaments promised. In a time span of just over 12 hours, it has been dramatically demonstrated how the significance of these world-renowned events can be severely diminished when referees have an undue impact on the outcome.
In the NBA Finals, the main discussion throughout was not the on-court play but the officiating, which was “questionable, momentum-swinging, and excessive,” as one observer summarized perfectly. The overwhelming sense of the impact of the officials was felt right through to last night’s whistle-happy 4th quarter, during which the Lakers took more foul shots than the Celtics did in the entire game. The NBA has sought to mute the controversy stirred up from allegations from former ref Tim Donaghy as well as independent analyses of officiating performance indicating bias and star treatment. Yet, the league appointed one of its most controversial refs, Joey Crawford, the lead official for Game 7. No stranger to controversy, Crawford was suspended after giving Tim Duncan a technical foul in a close game when Duncan laughed on the bench after a foul was called on the court. Crawford’s issues extended to his 2010 playoff performance, which had included two game-impacting calls that were beyond questionable and into the realm of the bizarre and amateurish — the doubly-blown calls involving Marcus Camby and Steve Nash and the hilariously weak double technicals on Crawford fave Kendrick Perkins. His lead official status showed the NBA’s indifference to dealing with its image problem and kept officiating as the lead story before and after Game 7.
Whoever was swayed by ESPN’s aggressive marketing of the World Cup to watch today’s USA-Slovenia match won’t remember the USA squad’s dramatic comeback from two goals down to force a tie. Rather, they’ll remember the impact of a referee making a game-changing call to negate a US goal when all available video evidence shows nothing that should’ve nullified the goal. That the disallowed goal was one of three incidents where official Koman Coulbaly displayed questionable judgment (see the takedown of Jozy Altidore that only warranted a yellow card as well as Robbie Findley’s card for a handball that appeared to only hit his face) only made it worse when it was learned that this was Coulbaly’s first World Cup match. Once again, the story centers not around on-field play but dubious officiating.
Now, there will always be bad calls, but those who minimize the import of what occurred at these two events are missing the point. While today’s World Cup match shows how fans might get fed up with refs essentially deciding outcomes, not much can be expected in terms of improvement from a governing body as diverse and large as FIFA. However, the increasingly autocratic manner in which each domestic commissar handles his sport could bode well for tweaking the quality of refs calling postseason action. From Bud Selig’s imbuing the All-Star game with postseason consequences to Roger Goodell’s micromanagement of NFL disciplinary matters, the various league commissioners in American sports have worked to increase their power over players and implement rule changes purported to improve the on-field product.
However, scant evidence exists that exhaustive rating, vetting, and training of officials tied in with consequences for performance and accuracy is a high enough priority in most leagues. That the officials chosen for the most important games are often chosen for reasons of seniority or labor agreement rather than merit is the center of the problem. It’s becoming a large enough issue that it threatens to alienate fans and discourage them from investing their hearts and cash into buying tickets and buying merchandise and premium TV/internet viewing packages. Major League Baseball made a change in the right direction when they removed the rule banning umpires from working in consecutive World Series, though more is needed to make sure enough top-rated umpires are in place throughout the postseason. It would behoove the other leagues to prioritize the revamp of their various officiating structures so that the referees can add to the experience rather than detract from it by becoming the focus.