In My Opinion

Bonnell: Publicly criticizing NBA refs may do more harm than good

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comMarch 16, 2013 

I’m a journalist, so I value transparency. We’re all predisposed to believe organizations should be as open and accountable as possible.

So, naturally, I applauded in November when the NBA acknowledged after the fact that its referees blew an obvious call in a game between the Charlotte Bobcats and Toronto Raptors. A foul should have been called on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist that would have given Andrea Bargnani free throws. Those free throws might have won a game the Raptors lost.

Since then the league has issued similar “Mea Culpas,” most recently when it announced Thursday that a foul should have been called on Atlanta’s Dahntay Jones for planting his foot where Kobe Bryant would land after a jump shot. That was another end-of-game situation, and the lack of a call might have cost the Lakers a victory.

I ran all this past a friend who used to be a coach at the pro level. I heard a counter-argument to my “all transparency is positive” position. I must admit there was merit to what I heard.

The short version of this coach’s argument is, “If it’s too late to undo a mistake, then why harp on it publicly?”

The slightly longer version is this:

• You invalidate one team’s victory without really making the loser feel better.

• You add to the paranoia about referees in a social media-driven time overdosed on snark.

This person – no longer a coach, but still involved with basketball – said it used to work this way: When a team got a bad call (or non-call) that might have decided a game, the general manager would contact the league office. The league would review and, if the call was egregious, take corrective action with the refs. Then the league would quietly apologize to the team that was wronged.

It was all internal and discrete.

Now the league is in the business of public apologies on a somewhat regular basis. This ex-coach believes that does more harm than good. That’s in part because we live in a time when every fan base believes it’s ripped off by referees.

Remember that picture from a Halloween party, of San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan and Tony Parker pointing toy guys at a Joey Crawford impersonator? That’s what makes this ex-coach queasy about the merits of the NBA reminding fans how fallible the referees are.

To use one of commissioner David Stern’s favorite words, it has a “corrosive” effect on the referees’ credibility.

As an advocate for transparency, I’d love to give that ex-coach a counter-argument of my own.

But I couldn’t. And that’s telling.

Five passing thoughts on the NBA and the Bobcats:

• The Kings haven’t yet been given permission to move to Seattle, but you don’t have to be a meteorologist to tell which way the wind is blowing. Stern telling the Sacramento group it’s not yet competitive with the Seattle group sounds like a “Last chance” warning.

• Twitter is often a waste of time, but if you followed the back-and-forth between Bryant and Jones after Bryant sprained his ankle (allegedly as a result of a dirty play by Jones), you got as unfiltered a view of how athletes think as I remember. I guarantee the next time Bryant and Jones are in the same game, it’s on.

• I know the Bobcats drafting Georgetown small forward Otto Porter would be redundant to what they already have in Kidd-Gilchrist. But Porter might be the most complete, NBA-ready player in college basketball.

• The way the New York Knicks’ injuries are piling up, it seems there’s a good chance they won’t win the Atlantic Division. Three weeks ago, that was inconceivable.

• There are plenty of worthy candidates for the NBA’s most valuable player award, but it’s now a race for second behind Lebron James.

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