The NBA’s Officiating Crisis

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Seemingly every NBA season is marred with an officiating controversy. It is, quite honestly, the story that never goes away. The problem is far more entrenched than simply a perception problem. What the league is now suffering is a crisis of integrity and legitimacy, and there is some genuine substance to obvious discrepancy associated with the way games are officiated with Lebron James. There is no question that it is in “the NBA’s best interests” for Lebron to essentially be the new Michael Jordan. The problem is he isn’t, and never will be, Michael Jordan. There is no “next”. That is obvious. But the league is desperate to create a common narrative amongst fans that Lebron is on Jordan’s level of dominance. Great. There’s nothing wrong with that, right? In theory, no. But legitimacy cannot be compromised in any sport. Not with steroids. Not with deflating balls. Not with spying on other teams. And certainly not with having officials consistently creating an unfair standard for whoever Lebron’s opposition is.

Look, before I go any further, let me clear about something: I do not hate Lebron James, or the Cleveland Cavaliers, or the Miami Heat. When I visited America last month, I dragged my girlfriend to the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers game on her freaking birthday. I wanted to see him play. I don’t like him, and I don’t dislike him. I respect him, I think he’s a top 10 player of all time (with years left on his career to possibly ascend higher). My problem here is not with Lebron. It’s with the NBA who continues to insult the intelligence of the fans by attempting to compromise the game in order to promote James.

I love this game. I love to play, watch, and talk about it. Growing up in Australia, rugby was my first sporting love and by far and away what I am best at playing. But nothing, no sport, comes even close to basketball in terms of purity and equality. It doesn’t matter what age you are, what race you are, your height or weight, sexuality, gender. All that matters is if you can play. These standards have been built from the great pioneers who helped shape not just basketball, but society. Look at what Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Magic Johnson all did for specific minorities of society. They won people over, and with it acceptance for everyone, by proving that it didn’t matter what race or religion you are. That right there is the power of sport.

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What I have seen in this Chicago vs Cleveland series compromises everything that those legends built, and I absolutely to refuse to shake my head and smile and accept “well superstars get the benefit in the NBA”. This is unfortunately true at times. Karl Malone, Jordan, Shaq, Wade, they’ve all received unbelievable calls. But the game of basketball at times is a bang-bang situation. The speed of the contest does dictate that. What I do not accept is when there is a blatant and obvious inconsistency occurring in front of my eyes. I do not accept that Lebron can smack Jimmy Butler in the head or grab Derrick Rose at mid-court at critical moments of game 3 and the refs simply choose not to call it. I do not accept that referee Scott Foster can be looking at Cavs coach David Blatt, shake his head, and ignore the fact that he signalled for a timeout when he didn’t have any at the end of game 4, which was a decision that changed the outcome of game 4. I can’t accept that after reviewing the Taj Gibson and Matthew Dellavedova incident where Delly locked Gibson’s leg with his legs, and Gibson kicked his leg free, that Gibson gets ejected and places an already depleted Bulls frontline in an even more precocious position (and would later prove costly as the Bulls couldn’t secure a critical rebound with 20 seconds to play). The last video is most incriminating, as the officials even reviewed the play before ejecting Gibson. I implore you to look at the video, and you will see exactly what I (and the referees) saw. And that is a Cavs player locking a Bulls player, the Bulls player kicking his leg free, and getting ejected for that. That is the new standard. And unfortunately, this is not an isolated example. Similar questions can be asked of the following series: Kings/ Lakers in 2002, Rockets/ Mavs in 2005, and Heat/ Mavericks in 2006.

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There are only 2 possible conclusions for this. One is the officials have some kind of vision impairment, and cannot see the obvious plays transpire (even when they are watching the replay), or they see the plays happen right in front of them and choose what to call and what to not call, regardless of what the rules state.  If you recall the frustration that NFL fans felt and displayed after the league tried to replace the officials with amateurs because of the inconsistencies that arose (Fail Mary, anyone?), and that was done out of pure incompetence. What we’re seeing now is not incompetence. The NBA officials have shown to ability to be impartial. They’ve shown the ability to make really difficult decisions. They know what they are doing. They are, like the players, at the top of their profession. If it was incompetence, explain to me how Joey Crawford is still officiating. Shouldn’t he have been fired by now? In my mind, it has to be the latter (the officials are blatantly one-sided), because I know what I see. I do not have a favourite team. I am not subjective when it comes to basketball analysis. But what I see does not match up with what I am being told. Do I believe that Lebron didn’t foul Rose or Butler because the refs didn’t blow the whistle? Do I believe that David Blatt didn’t call a timeout when they didn’t have one? Did Taj Gibson kick Dellavedova because he was ejected? Or do I believe the footage that’s in front of me that contradicts all of those statements?

I know I’m not the only one that sees what’s going on. I’m not trying to enlighten anyone with this. What am I trying to do is highlight how this is affecting the game, people’s appreciation of the game, and people’s respect for the game. The control that referees have over the game of basketball is absolutely impacting the competitive landscape of the NBA, and it is a disservice to the game. It brings this great game down to essentially the WWE, which is predetermined and scripted. At least, and to the WWE’s credit, they embrace this and don’t try to hide the fact that it isn’t a competition. The NBA, along with its media partners, go to such extreme measures to conceal the fabrication and stretching of the truth, whether it’s ESPN saying that “Taj Gibson kicked a player that’s on the ground” or the NBA admitting after-the-fact that they got the call wrong, but doing sweet fuck all to rectify it or at the least make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

The NBA is not a poor league. It is a multi-billion dollar corporation. And it has reached that status because of what has been built by the pioneers of yesteryear (Magic, Bird, Jordan, Dr J, Wilt, Kareem, Russell, etc.), and they’re letting this ruin it. It is tearing down the fabric of the game. The purity of the competition has been compromised in order to market the game’s biggest name, and this is no different to the steroid era that has plagued (and still does) baseball. I am yet to meet somebody who loves basketball more than me, and you have got to be kidding me that I have to sit here and watch the game get dragged down to essentially the WWE’s level in order to sell more shoes or Big Mac’s. Basketball is too good for this. But in a way, it is kind of ironic that the NBA brand is getting screwed up by the league itself. And the case and point of all this is, I’m not even talking about the brilliant performances of the playoffs this year. I’m not talking about Steph Curry lighting up Memphis in a must win game on the road. I’m not talking about the Clippers looking impossible (winning the NBA championship) right in the eye and daring to challenge for it. I’m not even talking about Lebron playing maybe the best that he’s ever played in the playoffs. I’m stuck talking about the shitty officiating.

The record books will show that the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Chicago Bulls 106-101 in a pivotal game 5. The record books won’t even begin to display the sheer frustration and disappointment of the majority of NBA fans around the world.