Why Do They Even Need Refs? We Watch for the Questions

566047-rasheed_wallace-395x300A few years ago, probably in late 2006 or early 2007, when my wife and I were getting to know each other, we would watch Pistons games on the local affiliate.  She had not been raised a sports fan, though she seemed to take a natural delight in awesome sports performance.  In the course of one of those games, Rasheed Wallace, then of the Pistons, was whistled for a foul.  Sheed threw his head back, indeed: threw his whole upper body back in a spasm of outrage and frustration.  He complained loudly and aimlessly to the air as he turned his back on the stopped play and stomped toward the scorer’s table.  Another whistle, sharper this time.  And the referee dramatically formed his hands into the shape of the letter “T.”  “T” for technical, as in technical foul, as in one of the 317 such technical fouls Sheed  has amassed (counting the two this past Sunday) in his 1103 NBA games.

I don’t think it was a particularly critical moment in the game, or I might have felt frustrated with Sheed. If the game were on the line, I might have turned my back on Sheed, betraying him and all he’d done for the team with a canned rant about how selfish it was for him to indulge his emotional outburst.  But the game wasn’t on the line, and so, safe, I laughed.  My wife, however, as I explained what had happened, was indignant; more, she was outraged.  But it’s not what you’re thinking; or not only that, anyway.  It wasn’t just that she felt Sheed’s technical was undeserved.  Her outrage was directed at the refs:  not at their incompetence, but at their existence.  “Why do they have to have refs?”

I laughed again, more nervously this time.  I sputtered through an explanation, a kind of pseudo thought experiment in which I tried to trot out the scenarios of chaos and devastation, of world ending cataclysm that would ensue if NBA games were played without referees.  Ever lucid, with compassion and an unerring sense of justice, she swatted away each of my images as easily and calmly as if they were harmless floaters tossed earnestly but weakly toward the hoop.  After all, we didn’t use refs when I played pick up ball at the playground, right?  Yeah, I probably said, exactly! And you should see what happens! The time-wasting arguments and standoffs.  But, she persisted, eventually they get resolved, right?  How?  I grudgingly admitted that we usually settled it with a shot from the top of the key, or with a mutual agreement that the next call would go to the side that lost this one.

So, “why do they have to have refs?”

Look, I know this sounds goofy.  I know they have to have refs, right?  I mean, can you imagine what would happen if they didn’t?  You’ve got these huge, fast, strong guys hurtling up and down the court at break neck speeds, leaping high in the air, risking their bodies and their livelihoods with every possibility of illegal contact.  And beyond that what if they don’t agree on a call?

Wait…what if it’s Game 7 of the NBA Finals and the Heat are down 1 to the Thunder and there’s only a few seconds left and LeBron has just driven into the lane and kicked out to an open Ray Allen on the wing.  Ray catches the ball and rises to shoot that beautiful jumper as Kevin Durant rushes out to leap at him arms outstretched.  Ray releases, kicking his legs slightly forward, just as KD descends, getting tangled up with Ray’s legs.  As both go down to the floor, Ray says “I got it” and the ball bounces harmlessly off the rim.

Does Ray go to the line?  Do the Heat take it at the top of the key?  Does KD argue?  Does someone else on the Thunder argue?  Does Ray or someone from the Heat argue back?  Does someone grab the ball and start walking around the court with it, refusing to give it back until the dispute is settled?  How will it be settled?  Will they shoot for it?  Who will shoot for it?  Will it ever be settled?  And, who in their right mind would pay to watch that?

We are drawn to the performance of athletes in large measure, I think, because of the sense of possibility they awaken and stir in us.  At the heart of that attraction is an avid interest in the way things can be different than how they usually are and perhaps also an abiding desire for things to be different than how they usually are.  Some might think of that desire as utopian.  But I don’t see it that way because in athletic performance we witness the transformation of the routine and the status quo into the truly novel.  In other words, we see not only that things can be different, but we see them being made differently, right before our eyes, and again and again, in play after play, game after game, season after season, generation after generation.

Yet this progressive, creative impulse in sports fans, which draws us toward the players and teams we love, coexists curiously in us with another attitude that is profoundly attached to tradition, and structure, and the status quo.  And so, in the wake of David Stern’s power play fine of the Spurs earlier this week, and in the wake of Sheed’s ejection on Sunday, for saying what he’s said ten million times before (“Ball don’t lie”), mainstream sports culture suddenly loses its imagination and becomes the voice of the Reality Principle, sputtering pseudo-rational, pseudo-balanced conventional wisdom.

Certainly, the argument goes, Popovich has the right to rest his players in the interests of the long term success of his aging team – after all, the playoffs are where NBA careers are made or broken.  On the other hand, Stern naturally has a compelling interest in ensuring that the league is providing a consistent, reliable audience to fans both in the seats and watching games at home on television.  Clearly, the argument goes, the refs in the Knicks game overreacted and the technicals, certainly the second one, was unjust.  But on the other hand, Rasheed Wallace has developed what is called  “a reputation” and a “track record” of unruly complaints to officials and so, we may presumably conclude, the second technical was just the bed that Rasheed has made for himself over his long NBA career.

I’m not saying that any of these positions are the right or the wrong ones (but Stern’s fine was outrageous, surpassed only by the outrageousness of the second — and even the first tech — on Sheed on Sunday!).  I’m saying that I find the preemptive limits set on the discussion irritating and confounding.  For they exclude from the outset even the mere consideration of such questions as “Why do they even need refs?”  “Why do they even need a commissioner?”  “Who would pay to see them play without refs?”  “What if the players formed their own league, no owners, no commissioner?”

And I’m not saying I don’t know answers to those questions, or at least the pseudo-answers.  But it seems like we rush past those questions like we’re scared of something, while chuckling at the naivete of the person asking them.  I’d rather pursue those questions because those questions have much more to do with why I watch sports than knowing answers that thoughtlessly reaffirm the inevitable necessity of the Way Things Are.

I’d rather pursue those questions.  In fact, I’d rather proliferate such questions because they awaken and stir in me an imaginative sense of possibility, an interest in things being different than they are, a desire that they be different.


  • I just hate the new Technical fouls the NBA is giving everybody for nothing at all! There is a limit, but they are way too strict!


  • I think the closest we may ever see to un-officiated professional sports took place earlier this season, only with the NFL….I’m guessing you remember the Seattle/Green Bay game! If not, i will be more than happy to re-visit the now famous implosion caused by the NFL on the players (and fans) with the replacement refs. It was gut wrenching to say the least. Now, granted, this should be in response to the NBA refs, but then again, I guess if you want to be COMPLETELY fair, we would also need to enroll NFL players in some lengthy and on going acting classes first…lol….all I have to say is thank God for instant replay rather than still languishing in decision making by the ‘arbitrators’ employed by all professional sports leagues to officiate. Actually, if you think about it, maybe the refs are the ones that keep us obsessed with sports, NOT the athletes or the sport. After all, with as talented and as much money the players make (respect aside), they wouldn’t EVER think of making an ‘unjust’ call, right? 😉 – GREAT article!


    • I think it might be useful to distinguish between “un-officiated,’ “incompetently officiated,” and “self-officiated.” It’s the latter that I’m interested in — as much out of stubborn contrarianism as anything else. Thanks for the engaged reply and the kind words!


  • This is exactly what I was thinking about after reading your last post. I went from “Wow, this is a great post” to “As oppressive as Hoops 2 can be, how does my engagement with Hoops 1 exist without it?”

    As great as the game is/can be, Hoops 2 (or more specifically the historical baggage that individuals have on every level of their lives) exists within the minds of all the players, even the ones we’d like to idealize as avatars of Hoops 1. It’d be hard for me to see a player-run league being all that different from the NBA as it’s currently built. I could see it being a tad bit more liberating, but as long as the forces of capital, race, and gender play such a hand in how people, businesses, and aesthetics operate our engagement with basketball (from a heavily regulated NBA finals game to a pick up game between kids in a park) will inherently be ruled by oppressive forces.


    • Thanks for your thoughtful reading. Mostly I agree with you. I certainly don’t think that Hoops 1 and Hoops 2 are really separable in actual practice (even in my fantasy of a player run league). But where you say “inherently ruled by oppressive forces”, I would probably substitute “inevitably entangled in a struggle to elude oppressive forces that don’t want to let go.” I meant, with my “Hoops 1” and “Hoops 2” schema to emphasize the priority (in every sense) of “Hoops 1” and, accordingly, the parasitic quality of “Hoops 2.”


  • Pingback: What is a Foul Anyway? (Excerpt from Ball Don’t Lie!) | Between the Lines

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