The Women’s Basketball Refereeing Problem

In the National Semi-finals of the 2012 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, I don’t think anyone was particularly happy about the refereeing. No one will say so explicitly lest they be sanctioned by the NCAA (fines for participants, access for press) but the whistle-holders were conspicuous in their inconsistency. There needs to be some reform.

I don’t pretend to think that refereeing is easy. I’ve reffed a few college intramural games in the past, and even at that level you understand that being on the floor is much different from being a spectator. Even so, there are some fairly obvious problems that can be easily fixed in both the women’s college and pro games.

First, though, I must praise the fact that traveling calls have gotten better since it was made a point of emphasis a couple of years ago. By both being mindful of foot shuffling while also accepting that the long drop step is still legal if done correctly has been welcome.

I have mixed feelings about the automatic flagrant 1 for an elbow above the shoulders. I applaud the concern about the dangers elbows can pose. On the other hand, that no allowance is made for players to simply pivot while holding the ball makes this problematic. It’s probably safest to make this a zero tolerance thing and not a judgement call, but it can at times seem arbitrary.

Where the refs fail is in much of the rest of the game — especially in terms of consistency.

Every officiating crew needs to be on the same page from the get-go. I’ve seen games were different fouls are called depending on the positioning of the referees. One will always call walks, the other every bump in the lane, another will never call a charge. This is where the lead official really needs to have a hold of the reins with eir crew.

As an extension to this: when the officiating crew decides to gain control of a game that’s getting “chippy”, it might be nice to tell the teams that they are tightening up the calls instead of having players suddenly accumulate fouls that hadn’t been called earlier. Making the teams guess is sort of cruel.

The number one change must be consistency — ideally throughout the game.

One inconsistency that gets my goat is what I call “the fix”. Whether it is intentional or not, whether is it influenced by outside forces or not, I don’t know, but sometimes it’s really obvious. In a game between Team A and Team B, the calls start out pretty legit. Team A, however, works up a significant lead. All of a sudden, like a switch was turned, Team A suddenly gets called for the slightest perceived infraction while Team B continues to get the benefit of the doubt. Team B gradually works its way back into the game via the foul line.

Worse are those officials who have an obvious bias, either to a team or to a specific player. I’ve seen this in scattered games through a season. I don’t cotton to it.

In the national semi-finals, there was initially some praise that the refs were “allowing them to play”…i.e. not calling the fouls that had been called in “ordinary” situations before tournament season began. I think there is a line between allowing them to play and letting the game become a rugby match. I give full credit to the players for adapting to this and not getting “chippy”.

The fact is that post players get mugged without a whistle getting blown while a casual bump on the perimeter will garner a foul. That needs to stop. I say loosen up the calls on the perimeter a bit (just a bit) while tighten up some for those on the block. Fighting for position shouldn’t mean a wrestling match.

I think some modification of calls on shots should change as well. First, and this is a biggie, NO anticipatory whistles. Call a foul only if you clearly see it and not because you think one must have happened. If you are blocked from seeing it, well, them’s the breaks. How often have we heard whistles blow before the alleged foul was committed?

Also, stop waiting for the shot to fall or not to decide to blow the whistle. Either it was a foul or it wasn’t. Don’t try to split the difference; you aren’t fooling anyone. In the spirit of letting the players play, I’d eliminate post-shot touch fouls of defenders on shooters if the touch didn’t affect the shot. A lot of shooting fouls get called after the ball has left the shooter’s hand when it’s really sort of pointless.

And while we’re still in shooting mode, the “shooter initiating the contact” needs to either be a no-call or a foul against the shooter. The initiator of the contact is the one committing the initial foul, by definition. If the defender has left her feet and does not retain her “verticality” within her personal cylinder, then she is the initiator if contact occurs, otherwise she has a right to her vertical space.

Tie-ups need to be called consistently. Both players with control of the ball for one second. This sometimes gets called almost instantly and other times results in a seconds-long struggle that resembles a scrum more than a tie-up.

Then there is blocking vs charging. This is an insanely difficult call that I think the officials usually get right. HOWEVER…I’d like to see fouls (or technicals) called for flopping. Flopping is a player’s (or team’s) way of sticking their tongue out at the officials. “Ha, ha! We fooled you!” Now, admittedly some players are more willing to try to take a legitimate charge and risk injury than others; they should get the correct call. But some will also fall at the slightest contact…sometimes falling even before contact. This is unacceptable. Call the flops.

The list could go on and on, but the underlying message is, and always will be: be consistent. Also, only call fouls you clearly see, not just what you suspect.

I don’t know how the current crop of referees are trained. I’d like to hope that they are regularly tested with game film as well as live-action simulations on what is and isn’t a foul. Take some of the personal judgement out of it and be as objective as you can. I would also like for there to be some transparency on evaluating referee performance — not the least of which is allowing some overt criticism of poorly officiated games by coaches and media.

Being the “bad cop” is an unenviable position. Having to make a call against the home team in their arena in front of 10,000 rabid fans is a pressure I don’t want to experience. What refs do is difficult and often thankless. Still, excellence is a tribute to the game and honors the players, coaches, and fans. As much as is asked of the teams, so too should we ask of the officials.

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