No Clear Option

So it seems some other sports blogger has noticed the recent aesthetic abasement of the NBA.

Simmons ties a lot of the game’s woes back to poor officiating, and in many ways he’s right. As he points out, many of today’s prominent officials are, well, old. Kinda really old, in some cases. He suggests that these officials might have difficulty following the action of the game, a problem which would only be exacerbated during the playoffs, when the NBA prefers to assign its most experienced, and therefore most senior, refs to the games of greatest importance.

While senescence may account for some of the problem of consistently enforcing the rules, also think about this: the rules have changed. Like, for instance, it’s hard to imagine any 1975 vintage player hacking it in the NBA of today. Doesn’t matter if that player was as kinesthetically wondrous as Dr. J or an immobile wall of sopping manflesh like Billy Paultz, any player from that era would have difficulty adjusting to the current game, and one reason is because the rules are subtly but vastly different. The three-pointer, 8-second backcourt violations, the crab dribble–it takes a lifetime of practice to perfect and embody these things at a professional level. Yet the NBA expects Dick Bavetta, whose been an official since 1975, to call the game the same way as Zach Zarba, who was born in 1975. Fans who grew up watching Oscar Robertson have a different view of what constitutes a traveling violation than those who accustomed to Michael Jordan–might not refs harbor the same sort of biases?

Another issue Simmons notes is the seeming paradox that, despite the league’s specific measures to do so, there hasn’t been an apparent reduction in excessively physical play. There are a couple of reasons this might be true, though Simmons uses a faulty analogy to highlight the league’s failures:

Finally, the logic behind “flagrant fouls” was that it was supposed to prevent … (drumroll, please) … flagrant fouls! Do you feel like that mission has been accomplished? Imagine your local police force telling you, “Since our crackdown on home robberies, home robberies have doubled in the past three years. We couldn’t be happier!”

Well, no, these aren’t exactly the same scenarios. It might be more apt to say that the police had previously dealt with burglaries by pretending they didn’t occur, and are now more aggressively combating the problem–which could plausibly result in a greater number of reported incidents.

Also, it shouldn’t be surprising that a strict prohibition actually results in an increase in the activity targeted by the prohibition. For instance, take the NBA’s new rule that if a player accumulates a 7th technical foul during the playoffs, he is suspended from the next game. As many commentators have pointed out, this puts the league in an awkward position–having to suspend, say, Lebron James or Kobe Bryant during the finals because of something they did in an earlier round. Dwight Howard was assessed his 6th technical on a call that was pretty weak sauce–and the league agreed, rescinding the technical foul after reviewing the game. Still, the NBA couldn’t be real pleased with the prospect of having to suspend one of its marquee player during the playoffs.

This is reminiscent of the illogic at the heart of nuclear deterrence. When Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles unveiled the “New Look,” they placed massive nuclear retaliation at the center of America’s foreign policy, the thought being that the Soviets would never instigate hostile activities in the face of total annihilation. As smart dude John Lewis Gaddis pointed out, this wasn’t a credible policy–the U.S. would never follow through on “less-than total challenges,” which left the U.S.S.R. free to do as it wished, like intervening in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. It’s argued that in some ways the threat of massive retaliation emboldened the Soviets, as they increasingly raised the stakes while calling America’s bluff.

The NBA finds itself in a situation similar to the U. S. of A. in the ’50s. The league really, really doesn’t want to have to follow through on its threat, and one way to avoid having to do so is to be much more lenient in assessing technical fouls. Players probably realize this, too–Kobe Bryant, et alii basically have impunity from the refs throughout the playoffs. That’s one way in which stricter policing of an activity can actually increase the activity’s frequency.

One thought on “No Clear Option

  1. hey ‘stulli – wassup with the dodgers winning without manny? do any of these players really matter…

    what say you?

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