The NBA is a league full of complainers.
The league’s coaches complain about the refereeing in the days leading up to both regular season and postseason games. The players complain about referee calls throughout the game, no matter how clearly wrong they might be. The fans complain about the calls, the announcers on the sideline complain about the calls, and the fans on Twitter complain about the announcers complaining about the calls. Then the referees get to go to their hotel room and open their league-issued laptops up to the NBA sending out emails complaining – constructively, but still complaints at their core – about the calls that they made.
And then, from the safety of my own work-issued laptop, I get to complain about how black and white the league’s rules have made calling this game over the last two decades, and about how announcers and fans never seem to understand just how tough it is to call an NBA game in real time. Or to study an instant replay monitor knowing that their bosses want them to take long hard looks that often aren’t necessary.
ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy is often the league’s Complainer in Chief. I should know this because I spend most of my Sunday afternoons on Twitter complaining about how JVG alternates fantastic lead analyst work on national broadcasts, with low-level sports talk radio-fashioned rants about things that really just aren’t that interesting in comparison to the athletic competition flying up and down the court in front of him.
Y’know … the competition he’s supposed to be talking about.
It turns out that, according to Jeff at least, the NBA has gotten in touch with his employers at ABC/ESPN, asking him to dial it down a bit. From an in-depth feature from the Oregonian’s John Canzano:
"I understand their job is hard. I understand officiating is hard, but guess what? So is guarding LaMarcus Aldridge. So is coaching. Of course it's hard, that's why those guys are making a lot of money. I'm not big on the idea that anytime you disagree on something, don't say anything about it," said Van Gundy, working now with ESPN as an NBA television analyst.
"I think they've been programmed to say that no one is supposed to talk about it. That you're supposed to say the officiating doesn't matter when we all know it absolutely does."
For this comment, Van Gundy's bosses at ESPN may get a call.
The NBA league office works behind the scenes to manipulate the public discussion on officiating, especially by on-air analysts, according to Van Gundy and others in the broadcast industry.
"They've tried to hurt me with my bosses," Van Gundy said. "They've called my bosses and said, 'Nobody wants to hear that guy whine about officiating.' They're pretty sensitive about that sort of stuff. I'm not quite sure why. I think by critiquing them you're talking of their importance to the game.
"I'm not sure why they'd be upset with that."
(Canzano revealed that NBA spokesman Tim Frank did confirm that he has reached out to some unnamed broadcasters, but two-time NBA director of operations Rod Thorn has said that he’s yet to make the same calls in either of his tenures.)
There’s no way someone as smart as Jeff Van Gundy is “not sure” why the NBA wouldn’t like him ripping on referees and rule call protocol on national TV on a Sunday afternoon, and before you chalk Jeff up to being some idealistic sage on a search for Transparency, Truth and Wisdom … come on. He’s also the NBA’s Cynic in Chief.
Which is great. When he’s on, he calls a great game, and it’s also necessary for the league to have its feet held to the fire a bit. The preponderance of “we have to call everything” block/charge calls, the ridiculous amount of time it takes to review a play that should be obvious amongst first glance on an HD receiver, and the noted recent little silly tweaks and adjustments (the oft-reviewed fast break foul call that slows the action, the delay of game penalty that slows the action) have turned what has genuinely been a peak NBA season into an annoying watch at times.
“At times,” mind you.
Referees get most of these right. And when LaMarcus Aldridge misses an 18-footer or the coach calls out a weird, momentum-killing set out of a timeout, nobody blinks. Because you’re only going to get half of these right.
And yet players, coaches, fans, and those with a microphone in front of them hold referees to an impossibly higher standard. All while the league office is scrutinizing every call (lest you make a no-call, which I believe was outlawed from the NBA in 1997) from on high.
Eventually, this could all work. The NBA is right to go over heaps of film as it monitors the referees, the league is right to think on its feet and make year-to-year adjustments to improve its product, it is right to initiate instant replay, it is right to encourage fast break-killing fouls, and it’s right to ask Kevin Garnett to stop slapping the damn ball away after a made basket.
The issue here is implementation, and clearly the league and its refs have a long way to go. Replay calls are met with audible groans from NBA crowds as soon as those courtside monitors are whipped out.
Until then, it also isn’t wrong for the NBA to be reaching out to Jeff Van Gundy to try to get him to see both sides of things. Much in the same way Jeff would wonder if a Joe Blow could handle suiting up as a head coach for a night after criticizing Terry Stotts, or see if his brother Joel Blow could make it past the first quarter as a television broadcaster after tossing some rude Twitter words at Mike Breen, it’s time to get someone with a prominent voice to balance criticizing the referees when applicable, but also teaching those who they’re charged with entertaining about just how damned impossible it is to call an NBA game in 2014.
The refs blow calls in real time, some recent tweaks are a pain in the tail, and it’s true that the NBA would be better off with some (or one, really) of its showier referees calling it a career. It also remains an increasingly tough game to call, with increasing pressure from all angles – players, coaches, fans, announcers, and the NBA itself.
Just something to consider, the next time things don’t go your favorite team’s way.
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