A Flagrant Foul on the Refs

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Glenn James / NBAE / Getty

NBA official Joey Crawford ejects Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs after Duncan's second technical foul during NBA action against the Dallas Mavericks April 15, 2007.

In a perfect world, an NBA referee is like a kid at a 1950s dinner table — seen, not heard, and most definitely not trying to be the center of the attention. The ref just needs to the keep the contest under control, be fair to both sides, and not miss the obvious call that could decide a game. The playoffs should be remembered for the hot shooting of the upstart Golden State Warriors, the acrobatics of New Jersey's Vince Carter, and the wizardry of Phoenix Suns' Steve Nash.

Not the whistle of Ken Mauer.

Yet there was Mauer, in Game 5 of Golden State's stunning first round series upset over the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks, injecting himself into the action by ejecting Golden State forward Stephen Jackson with nine seconds left for that vile, repugnant offense — sarcastic clapping. Jackson, admittedly, is no choir boy: he received a 30-game suspension for his role in the notorious Pistons-Pacers brawl of '04. But the ejection was just silly, and it's only the latest instance of hot-headed NBA officials stealing the limelight by flaunting their power on the court.

In Game 2 of the series, Bennett Salvatore hit Golden State star point guard Baron Davis with a technical foul for a similarly mild offense. It was his second tech of the game, so Davis was also ejected. Last Thursday Dick Bevetta, a 32-year league veteran, rushed across the court to call a tech on Houston Rockets forward Juwan Howard in Game 6 of the Rockets-Jazz series. This call was particularly confounding since Utah's Mehmet Okur, not Howard, had instigated a mini-scuffle after the Houston forward committed a tough, but not intentional, foul. Last weekend, referee Bob Delaney went so far as to call a technical on Phoenix Suns assistant coach Mark Iavaroni at midcourt during halftime. And even before the playoffs, longtime ref Joey Crawford grabbed headlines when he kicked the league's stoic superstar, Tim Duncan, out of a game for laughing on the bench after a foul call against one of his teammates. As the two exchanged words in the aftermath, Crawford also asked Duncan if he wanted to fight him. For once commissioner David Stern seemed to recognize that the refs, rather than the players, had gone over the line, and he suspended Crawford indefinitely for his bravado.

As if the refs weren't causing enough consternation on their own, the New York Times recently reported on a yet-to-be published study, from a University of Pennsylvania business school professor and Cornell economics grad student, that suggests that the refs are racially biased. The authors studied 14 years of data and found that white officials called fouls at a greater rate against black players, and to a smaller degree, black refs called a higher rate of fouls against whites. The NBA, aware that this study was in the works, released its own report that, shockingly, found no bias. Most players just scoffed at the academics. "They must not have studied me, because I've had more issues with black referees calling fouls on me than white officials," says Orlando Magic forward Grant Hill. "It's just foolish. Someone had too much time on their hands."

Regardless of its statistical merits, the study was a reminder of just how subjective, and random, officiating can be. Few coaches, players or fans will deny that superstar players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James or Dwyane Wade — as was ridiculously evident in last year's NBA Finals — get more favorable calls, or that home teams invariably get more of the benefit of a ref's whistle. But their willingness to call technical or flagrant fouls in crucial situations for actions that a few years ago would have been ignored has led many observers to believe that the refs' egos are getting too big for their own, and the game's, good. "The bothersome thing is that we are forced to talk about the referees," says ESPN analyst and former NBA point guard Greg Anthony. "With all the great basketball going on, they're in the conversation. That's just frustrating."

The refs don't deserve all the blame for the excess. It was Stern who issued a zero-tolerance policy before this season to stop players from constantly complaining, which resulted in a 10% jump in regular season technical fouls. And many would agree with the NBA's claim that in an era when refs spend hours after each game reviewing tape and critiquing their on court performance, on balance the level of officiating has actually never been better. "The refs are just doing what they're told," says Hill. If that's the case, then it's up to Stern to ease his "no-whining" edict and tell the officials to let the players play, especially for the playoffs. Post-season basketball is enormously emotional, and in the heat of these high-stakes games, it's no surprise that griping will grow.

So refs, just let Stephen Jackson clap or Tim Duncan laugh. Because if you don't, fans won't be doing either, and in the NBA, that's never good for business.