Basketball fans or sports fans in general have a collective reputation for being non-objective. By definition fans are never going to be objective. After all, the word fan is short for fanatic. Therefore, when it comes to sports fandom all rational thought ceases, especially when the hometown team is involved. Sports fans also tend to speak from both sides of their mouths depending whether or not a ruling favors their team.
As fans, but even the country as a whole, we are a nation of complainers. Nationally we gripe about who’s in public office, the state of our schools, taxes, etc. As fans we complain about coaches, as if we could do better, governing bodies, or the distance we sometimes travel to attend games. The most eviscerated group, at least in the basketball realm, has to be the officials.
Basketball officiating, while I have never attempted it, is a tough job. It’s not easy being an official in any sport, really. In baseball, though, there is much more objectivity. The ball is either fair or foul. The runner is either safe or out. Basketball officials make many more judgement calls. It draws the ire of Maine Basketball Commissioner Peter Webb to hear a color commentator say on a bang-bang “That was a great no-call.” A call was made. No whistle.
There is the crux of the matter. Not every bit of contact in basketball is a foul. Does the contact give one player an advantage? Even then decisions have to be made in an instant. There often isn’t enough time to ponder whether or not an advantage was gained. Add the fact the official is working with one or two other individuals who make have different concepts as to what constitutes an advantage.
“Let em play.” It’s a mantra we hear in just about every gym or arena, especially when one or both teams are in the bonus by the end of the first quarter. Commissioner Webb in defense of the officials has stated on more than one occasion, “they are letting them play. They are letting BOTH teams play, the offense AND the defense.” Besides we like the concept of letting them play until our player gets hit going to the basket then it’s “BLOW THE WHISTLE.”
The recent high school basketball tournament was marked by a lack of “flow” in many of the games. As usual, the officials took the brunt of blame from fans for this occurrence. As if the primary job of the officials is to make sure the games are entertaining for the fans. Their responsibilities are to get the calls correct and to ensure fair play for both teams. In games which feature a dearth of scoring and poor shooting more fouls tend to be called. More missed shots mean more rebounds, in turn there is more of an opportunity to foul.
For years many complained the same faces were working tournament games each year. We needed new blood. This year’s tournament, at least the Northern B, C, and D tournament in Bangor, featured more officials in their first or second year working tourney games than in any year I can recall. Of course, many complained there were too many newer officials working.
This debate in how the game is called peaked with the most recent NCAA men’s championship game between North Carolina and Gonzaga. Here were two teams, both very good, but neither are likely to be remembered as all-time great teams. Both teams were big and physical with play-makers who drove to the basket. To top it off neither team shot the ball well. It was the perfect storm for a whistle fest and that’s exactly what we got on the sport’s biggest stage.
Of course fans lambasted the officials for creating an ugly national championship game. Listening to the voice of reason, ESPN’s Jay Bilas, the next day he eloquently pointed out how difficult the game was to officiate. The main question fans need to ask was not whether the flow of the game was interrupted but rather “were the calls correct?”.
After the 2015 season the NCAA implemented a freedom of movement initiative which has in turn bolstered scoring. While this year’s national championship game was tough to watch, the overall game is better when the whistle is blown. The “let ’em play” mentality results in more games like the 2011 final in which Connecticut beat Butler 53-41.
As fans we need to make up our minds about what we really want and what is truly best for the game.