The vast majority of NBA fans have problems with the league's officiating, but the extent of that outcry takes many different forms. Some simply think officials are bad, others imagine a vast conspiracy that comes from the highest levels of the league office, and more still may see the referees as lizard people who will eventually eat us all alive. Whatever the opinion, though, it figures that the fan does not know much about how the NBA tries to organize and explain its officiating practices. These sorts of things tend to be kept private, if they exist at all.
Well, for the first time, the league has publicized some of its efforts to explain itself. On Monday, the NBA sent a memo to teams about how it calls the defensive principle of verticality (i.e. how a defender holds his position when jumping to defend a shot). It also posted that memo to its website, along with several more explanations of various points of emphasis from this season. Brian Mahoney of the Associated Press has more:
The league sent a memo about verticality plays to referees and team personnel on Monday, and for the first time also posted it online at nba.com/official along with the five other points of emphasis memos that were previously distributed this season.
''We've seen some stuff that wasn't exactly right that's been printed about certain things, so our feeling was that by sending it out to the media that maybe we'll help educate in some cases, but also so everybody can see exactly what we're doing,'' president of basketball operations Rod Thorn said.
''We don't want anybody to think, 'What the heck are these guys doing, or what are they telling people to do' like it's some secret society up here. It isn't.''
It's become even less secret since Adam Silver took over as commissioner on Feb. 1, vowing to make the league more transparent in its operations.
That reference to Silver is important. In January, roughly a month before Silver officially took over for longtime commish David Stern, outspoken Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban suggested that the NBA should communicate about its officiating to teams and fans in an effort to improve confidence in its product. In February, Cuban praised the then-new decision to issue these memos to teams, but Monday's public release is more in keeping with his original point. By speaking about these issues in public, the NBA at least shows its fans — its audience and customers, if you prefer those terms — that it's committed to making its officiating as good as it can be and listens to concerns. As Cuban wished, these public statements suggest that the NBA isn't unaware of concerns about the quality of officiating and is working to improve performance.
None of this means that fans will stop getting upset. A glance at the officiating memos suggests not so much a comprehensive reaction to concerns as a reiteration of the rulebook. The memo on verticality, for instance, provides useful video evidence and further explanations of the rule and its variants, but there's little there that referees shouldn't already know. These are reminders, not reforms. Unless referees had simply forgotten the rules or were to improve in-season at a heretofore unseen rate, chances are that fans are still going to get upset at certain calls and maybe even think their favorite teams are getting screwed. The observed quality of officiating might not change much.
However, improving their officiating isn't really the point of publicizing these memos. By communicating and making it clear that they're aware of concerns, league officials make it more difficult for certain fans to claim conspiracy. Not everyone will feel the same way — people who believe in conspiracies also believe they're kept hidden. But this is the first step toward increasing confidence in the product, even if emotional reactions to calls won't go away entirely. Cuban and others were concerned that the league wasn't showing enough respect to upset customers, and this acknowledgement will help in that area. Organizations don't always have to show tangible improvement to ease their audiences' minds — a basic response will often suffice. Ultimately, the question is if fans will be fine with this attention long-term or eventually demand something more.
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