Do NBA referees carry out personal grudges by calling mean-spirited fouls?
When Raptors guard Fred VanVleet made headlines this past week with a post-game dress-down of the league’s officiating in the wake of Wednesday’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, he strongly suggested he believes they do. Issuing a stream of anti-referee venom that was as profane as it was calmly delivered, VanVleet singled out one referee in particular: 10-year veteran Ben Taylor.
VanVleet insisted Taylor had worked games in which he’d received the bulk of his eight technical fouls this season — five of eight, by one count.
“At a certain point as a player, you feel it’s personal,” VanVleet said.
There are those, of course, who’d argue that such a clash of agendas is a matter of human nature. In a league with 450-some players and 70-some officials, there is bound to be oil-and-water rancour that might colour a referee’s judgment.
Monty McCutchen spent 25 years as an NBA referee, working 169 playoff games and 16 games in the NBA Finals before his 2018 retirement. And even if McCutchen was one of the most respected officials of his era, he said he’d understand if there were players and coaches who figured he had something against them.
“There’s absolutely going to be some people who felt along the way that I was doing this or that because I didn’t care for (them),” McCutchen said.
But after a week in which the state of referee-player relations has been a hot-button topic around the league, McCutchen, now the NBA’s vice-president of referee development and training, said he wanted to make something clear: In his experience, it’s simply not feasible for an NBA referee to use the game to grind axes.
“We have an entire basketball strategy and analytics team that grades referees. And when we see commentary like (VanVleet’s), we go in and do analysis — analysis on referees and on referee-player relationships,” McCutchen said. “Something like this comes up and we flat out see whether there is bias or not. And in my five years (as VP of referee development and training) we have not found (such a bias) in a single instance, where there’s been a bias from a referee to a player over a long enough body of work.”
If credible evidence of personal bias was found, he said, the consequences would be serious.
“I’ll be really clear about this. If I found bias like that, it wouldn’t be, ‘Oh, we’re not going to let this referee referee this team or this player,’” McCutchen said. “No, if there’s a bias like that, that we ever find, it’ll be, ‘This referee is no longer being the professional that we need them to be.’ Because the fundamental tenet of all officiating is fairness.”
That’s not to say McCutchen is of the belief NBA officiating is beyond reproach. He says his staff’s work is “excellent” if “imperfect.” But there’s no denying the past handful of years have seen a number of the officials long acknowledged to be among the league’s elite retire, leaving a bevy of relatively inexperienced whistle-blowers.
“I do think we’re a young staff. I do think we have ample room for growth. And I own that that’s my job, to grow them as quickly and as fast as possible,” McCutchen said.
You can make a case that a big part of the blame for the current on-court tensions lies with the players.
Complaining about most every call has become commonplace. But if some see the unending acrimony as an epidemic, McCutchen said it’s a societal problem as much as an NBA one. Officials take abuse at all levels in all sports, to the point that it’s become difficult to attract new recruits to the craft. He reasons it’s better to have players who care passionately than not. And technical fouls are down compared to last season.
Players, of course, have their many grievances with the zebras, among them game-to-game inconsistencies and the perception that officials aren’t held sufficiently accountable for mistakes.
“I guarantee that if the refs started getting fined for missed calls, it would be a lot better,” Lakers big man Anthony Davis said a couple of months back.
McCutchen said it’s true that referees are not fined for missing judgment calls. But they can be fined for procedural errors, such as inbounding the ball at the wrong place, and for using inappropriate language.
“We’ve done that several times this year,” McCutchen said. “We most certainly take how we communicate very, very seriously.”
Just like an athlete can see his playing time cut for poor results, referees can see opportunities dwindle with subpar work.
There are three levels of official: entry-level umpire, referee and crew chief. Shoddy performance can see a referee demoted to umpire. A full-time official can be demoted to part-time. A struggling official can be placed in the “on-notice program.” They’ve got one year to improve or get out.
For officials, in other words, there’s ceaseless scrutiny.
The league has a system in place for disputing what teams see as unjustified technical fouls. So far this season, there’ve been 15 technicals on players rescinded because they didn’t meet the league’s standard. And there’s the daily last-two-minutes report, in which the league enumerates the botched calls late in every game.
There’s financial incentive to excel at whistling calls correctly. Come playoff time, the NBA staff of 70-some officials is winnowed to 36 for the first round. It’s cut to 28 for the second round, and 20 for the conference finals. Only the best 12 officials work the NBA Finals. Officials are paid by the playoff round, not by the game. So contrary to a well-worn conspiracy theory, there’s no incentive to extend a series. Personnel decisions run season by season.
“There are no made men or women in the NBA,” McCutchen said.
All of which is to say: Given the difficulty of parsing fouls in a lightning-fast league, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of remaining bandwidth for petty feuding with players. None of which is likely to convince the likes of VanVleet.
While the Raptors guard has since expressed some regrets for the comments that cost him a $30,000 (U.S.) fine — “A little unprofessional for my standard,” he acknowledged — he hasn’t exactly recanted. And his sentiment has been co-signed by the likes of Boston’s Marcus Smart, who said this past week he’s felt “numerous” officials have harboured a “personal vendetta” against him.
“There are a lot of people that feel that way,” VanVleet said in the cold light of the following day.
It’s a belief that might be difficult to dispel. Which doesn’t mean McCutchen will stop trying.
“Referees just don’t go around (carrying out grudges),” McCutchen said. “I know that’s hard for people to believe … We say that it’s human nature, but that’s what training is for. Training is there so that we can overcome human nature. And then training gets transferred to accountability.”
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