Are Today's Refs Soft?
A quantitative investigation.
The NBA does not like it when referees are the topic of discussion.
Officials in any sport are at their best when their names never come up. The NBA tried to codify that by fining players, coaches, and staff who publicly criticize the zebras, but every once in a while, we’ll get someone who decides that $30K is a small price to pay to make their feelings known.
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Enter Fred VanVleet:
I’m not sure how many casual or even hardcore NBA fans could’ve picked Ben Taylor out of a lineup before this epic rant, but he sure has hit the national radar now!
(The NBA website has hilariously fluffy profiles of all of their referees in an attempt to humanize them. Sample from Ben Taylor’s profile: his favorite movie is Field of Dreams. Guess he’s umping the wrong sport!)
NBA viewers and players have grumbled about techs all season long. A string of recent high-profile incidents hasn’t helped:
All the public discourse had me wondering if we truly were in the Tarnished Age of unnecessary technical fouls. Unfortunately, it turns out that the data I wanted was almost impossible to find (lots of places have leaderboards or player-only information, but a lot of techs are assessed to coaches and other personnel, too). I eventually was able to locate technicals on a per-team basis back to the 2017-2018 season (shout out to Niku Mistry, author of the must-have NBA Almanac, for the help!).
So what do we see?
We’ve had several seasons of shortened games in the last six years, so I adjusted for that and prorated out to an 82-game season. I also normalized for pace.
The total number of techs given out is not dramatically out of line with the past. Indeed, last year actually was the highest in this six-year period, based on my projections for 2023. I don’t have point-in-time technical foul data, so it’s possible that the pressure of the end of the season results in more technicals; maybe my linear projection for 2023 is underestimating how many more we’re about to see. But even if we’re at the high end of recent history, it’s definitely not an unusual outlier.
(Side note: It’s interesting that 2021 has so few technicals even when I adjusted for a 72-game season. In the midst of COVID, perhaps players and refs were a little calmer as they realized that the game they played wasn’t actually life or death… but that lesson was short-lived, and 2022 set the record for most techs within this time span.)
So if techs are on the upper end of normal today, what about ejections?
Ejections in the last two years do seem to be trending higher, although the sample isn’t really large enough to get a good feel for how dramatic this rise truly is. Some ejections don’t come from player-ref interactions, but from player-player altercations — physical confrontations often lead to double ejections, for example.
The Barnes booting posted above came because he supposedly muttered, “Y’all cheating, bro,” to Scott Foster. There had been several hotly contested calls (that went both ways, I should point out) in the last minute of that game, and while tempers were flaring, the mild-mannered Barnes seemed an unlikely candidate for ejection. Regardless, he was sent packing for “questioning the integrity of the crew” and banned from the game.
(Sample from Scott Foster’s profile: his hidden talent is body surfing.)
The NBA (and all sports leagues) is always going to come down like Mjolnir on any comment that has even a whiff of a hint of a shadow of an implication that there may be gambling involved, particularly after the Tim Donaghy scandal. The second the league loses the public’s trust, it’s cooked. So while the Barnes ejection was bad, I can at least understand the reasoning.
Listen: fans, players, and coaches have always complained about the refs and the techs. The most egregious example in my memory was when Tim Duncan got a technical for laughing at a Joey Crawford call while he was sitting on the bench. That technical, his second, got Duncan tossed. The league reviewed the incident and determined Crawford was out of pocket; he was suspended for the rest of the season. That was back in 2007! (I had my own, more enjoyable run-in with Joey Crawford once!)
I hate to sound like an old man when I say things like this, but social media has blown every incident way out of proportion. Any time a questionable technical or ejection is assessed, it goes NBA-Twitter-viral for 24 hours, and fans always bring it back up the next time that ref is assigned to the team. The internet has a loooong memory for poorly-perceived calls.
Most people would say refs today are worse than ever before. I’d argue that, given the training and tools available to them and the oversight provided, they’re almost certainly better, but they’re working in far more adverse situations.
Basketball is the hardest sport to referee. There’s tons of contact on every play, the rules are nebulous at best (I’m convinced even the league’s head honchos couldn’t tell you what a block or charge is), and today’s players have become insanely good at baiting officials into making calls. Every player in the league, including your favorite guy, carries, travels, hooks, grabs, pulls, and flops to some extent; it’s bad business not to.
Stripey-shirts also know what to expect from individual players. Zach Zarba, in an brief interview with Sopan Deb of the New York Times, mentioned that most refs are active on social media, but not for the reasons you think:
Do you read social media? Do other refs? If so, I apologize. I didn’t mean it.
I do read social media. In terms of just knowing our league, I think it’s important. I don’t read social media about myself. We pay attention to social media just so you can know what’s going on in your league. You need to know if a certain player has a problem with somebody else.
I just want to clarify: You keep track of player beefs entering a game?
Oh, we also have a security meeting 60 minutes before the game where you meet with the head of security for each team and we talk about any problems between the teams. You want to have all the relevant information so that you can make accurate decisions. You don’t want to anticipate the decision, but you want to have all the relevant information before you make a decision.
(Sample from Zach Zarba’s profile: his favorite meal is Shrimp Oreganata.)
Zach can claim all he wants that he’s not looking at what people say about him, but I don’t believe it. It’s human nature to want to know what people are saying about you. And when it comes to refs, people rarely say kind things.
The refs are under a lot of pressure and in a no-win situation here: every whistle is put under a microscope, high-definition and slow-motion replays make it instantly clear to the public (and fans/coaches/players in the stadiums) whether they get a call right or wrong, and they take an astonishing amount of verbal abuse. I dare you to watch a Dallas Mavericks game and focus only on Luka Doncic. He’s constantly screaming at officials on every single play, without fail. It’s the worst. I’d have him ejected in the first two minutes of every single game; I’m not strong enough to be a referee.
Of course, over thousands of NBA games, stripes are going to get some calls wrong. Maybe they roll into the arena one night in a bad mood and have a quicker whistle than usual; maybe they just have a bad game. Star players have off nights; so do referees.
The biggest problem: there is almost certainly some level of implicit bias in referees against certain players or coaches. It would be impossible to completely avoid. But the league is run by smart people; they have copious safeguards in place to monitor ref behavior.
It always makes me laugh when I see people freaking out because, for example, the Boston Celtics were supposedly 27-2 in games reffed by Eric Lewis, according to a viral Tweet I won’t bother linking to and that was immediately debunked.
(Sample from Eric Lewis’ profile: his favorite TV show is “Martin.”)
The league is constantly monitoring these things. They know which refs have a “beef” with which players, and which refs seem to cower in certain arenas. Every possible split about every official is well known to try and control for biases. From Ben Dowsett’s piece for FiveThirtyEight:
Every single call made by NBA referees — and many of those not made — is graded by impartial observers, then inputted into a vast database including every official in the league. This data is used in ongoing referee training and development, and it helps in determining ref promotions and playoff assignments. Teams are even given partial access to and are allowed to make some inquiries into specific calls.
And these stats extend past gameplay and into the murky world of gambling. Ref performance against the spread, for example, is just the tip of the iceberg (for obvious reasons, there isn’t much publicly known about what, specifically, the league is tracking. Frankly, a little more transparency would likely do the NBA’s refs some good.). Naturally, referees and their families are closely watched for any ties to the gambling world.
Even with all this oversight, you’ll never get perfection from human referees. There’s always room for improvement. No fan wants to see an important player ejected in the fourth quarter of a tight game, particularly if it’s a heat-of-the-moment type call. Players have millions of dollars (and reputations) on the line, particularly in the playoffs, and a blown call can cost them in very real terms.
But also, at some point, the players and coaches need to take accountability for their actions. Yes, they need to be allowed to blow off steam and react to a call they disagree with, but these guys have been playing basketball all their lives. They know where the line is, and they know what is going to get them T’d up. A few incidents aside, the vast majority of techs are pretty clearly deserved. You don’t have to be a master lip reader to know when a player says something that his mother wouldn’t have approved of.
Complaining about refs and soft calls has been a part of the game for as long as there have been referees. But from what I can tell, based on the limited data I found, the refs don’t seem to be much acting different than they have been in the recent past.
Just don’t tell Fred VanVleet.
This made virtually no difference, but I felt like it was important to consider. The more possessions there are, the more shots, and the more shots, the more fouls and non-calls, and the more fouls and non-calls, the more arguments there are. This would have been a more important control if we’d had technical data over decades, where we see much more dramatic changes in pace.
This article isn’t meant to dive heavily into referees and gambling, so I’ll just note that while it’s impossible to design a bulletproof system, the league did implement many new measures after the Donaghy scandal showed the flaws in the old system. Is there capacity for trouble still? Absolutely, but it’s a heck of a lot harder to pull off than it used to be.
The refs are way better now than in the past and fans have way more access to the game than in the past at a rate that has out paced ref improvement. The fact that refs make mistakes--the human element--is something I like about the game. Perfectly capturing every call would make the basketball unwatchable and the randomness of made and missed calls adds drama. Unless it’s my Wizards getting the bad call, then it’s a problem (I kid)