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Eric Freeman

NBA ref sues AP writer over critical tweet

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that NBA officiating is terrible. However, the ways we learn that fact are changing: writers and fans debate bad calls on Twitter and Facebook, DVR allows everyone to watch the call in question as many times as they wish, and YouTube ensures that we'll all be able to view the play for years and years, or at least until the NBA flags the video as an example of copyright infringement. Pretty soon you'll be able to check in to a certain referee decision on Foursquare or order it at a discount on Groupon. Please note that I have no idea how those two sites work. The point here is that we now operate within mediums we don't fully understand yet, in part because their ethical limits have not yet been drawn.

If this all sounds a little broad to you right now, then read this story about NBA referee Bill Spooner suing Associated Press writer Jon Krawczynski (who does not play Jim Halpert on "The Office") for a particularly controversial tweet. The details, as reported on ESPN.com:

Bill Spooner, a 22-year veteran NBA official, is suing Minnesota Timberwolves beat reporter Jon Krawczynski for tweeting during a game that Spooner promised coach Kurt Rambis that he'd get the Wolves two points in the form of a make-up call, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal reports.

According to Spooner's suit, Rambis took umbrage with a foul called against his team in the second quarter of a Jan. 24 game against the Houston Rockets. Spooner then told an upset Rambis that he'd review the call at halftime.

Rambis asked how his team was supposed to get the two points back. While Spooner's suit claims he didn't respond to the Minnesota coach's question, Krawczynski tweeted otherwise.

"Ref Bill Spooner told Rambis he'd 'get it back' after a bad call," Krawczynski tweeted. "Then he made an even worse call on Rockets. That's NBA officiating folks."

Spooner's suit seeks over $75,000 in damages along with both an unpublishing and retraction of the statement on the grounds that the tweet is a defamatory accusation.

At the risk of bringing on another lawsuit, I must say that Bill Spooner has momentarily lost his mind, or at least doesn't understand Twitter very well. Krawczynski has 2,072 followers as of this writing, and the tweet in question received a mere 14 retweets, none of which came from anyone with more followers than the author. At most, this tweet reached a few thousand people.

I throw out these numbers not to demean Krawczynski -- BDL editor Kelly Dwyer, who knows these kinds of things better than virtually anyone, singled him out to me as one of the most compelling NBA game-recap guys at the AP -- but just to point out that Spooner has made a huge misstep here. This lawsuit has already received more publicity than the original tweet by a factor of at least 100. And while many readers will likely think Spooner was done wrong by this tweet, just as many will probably assume that he's the kind of ref who piles bad calls on top of each other instead of just acknowledging his mistakes and doing a good job the rest of the way. He has almost guaranteed that his name will come up in all future discussions of poor officiating.

On top of all that, Krawczynski is getting in hot water for the kind of thing that would never make it into one of his game recaps. Twitter is fundamentally a real-time medium, a place for ephemeral statements on present events. Reporters note bad officiating, but, unlike the most unhinged superfans, they're not in the business of cataloging referee errors in their stories when their length limits demand substantive statements of fact. Without Twitter, Krawczynski's reportage never would have seen the light of day. In fact, it'll be interesting to see if he continues tweeting now that he's in such a legal mess.

In his now massively retweeted notice of this story, Darren Rovell noted that it could be a game-changing lawsuit for journalists on Twitter. For the most part, I agree, although not because more suits could follow. If Twitter is a wild landscape of opinions and unverified reports these days, then this story is just one of many coming civilizing events for this service and others like it. Old-media journalists sometimes complain that the Internet has no ethical principles, but the better explanation is that those guidelines haven't yet been clearly drawn. Most basketball tweeters aren't going to stop criticizing Bill Spooner due to legal paranoia, but they may think twice the next time they send out an update like this one without the benefit of audio. You can't report something in a newspaper without credible sources, and the same could soon become true for gainfully employed writers on the web, too.

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