Every few years a retired professional football or baseball player comes up for Hall of Fame voting and is denied solely because he's deemed unworthy of being a "First-Ballot Hall of Famer." In the last three years Cris Carter has been denied first-ballot entry to the Pro Football HOF ostensibly because Art Monk had to wait a while, and Ryne Sandberg had had to wait until his third try to get into Cooperstown because, well, he wasn't Rogers Hornsby. Given that there are no special wings in Canton and Cooperstown for first-ballot inductees, the idea of first-time candidates being held to a different standard has always struck me as an exercise in exclusion for its own sake. Basketball officials are sometimes guilty of a similar offense when we place an unreasonable burden on post defenders. I'm happy to report, though, that the reasons for that sin are much less self-indulgent.
One of the four cardinal principles of basketball officiating is "Referee the Defense." This is sound advice since most fouls are indeed committed by a defender. And given the fact that there's usually no predicting when a play will break trend, officials hedge their bets by always beginning their judgment of match-ups by focusing on the defense. It is the practice of refereeing the defense that leads virtually no experienced official to see the block/charge as the most difficult play to call, the ramblings of well-meaning commentators notwithstanding. For if we're doing a good job refereeing the defense, most block/charge plays end up calling themselves.
But the principle of refereeing the defense can occasionally lead us astray when refereeing tough plays in the paint that aren't classic block/charge situations. Consider the following: A pass is entered into the low block, and the offensive player wheels into the lane and initiates contact with his primary defender. Let's say that because of a late position adjustment on my part, I have not done a perfect job of ascertaining whether legal guarding position was established. Let's further imagine that the defender is in the process of putting his arms up as he's drawing the contact, so it's not a clear "arms straight up" situation. Arms end up flailing and the shot only grazes the front of the rim.
Let's further say that in going up for the shot, the defender wasn't bowled over; he wasn't even displaced, but that there's more contact than I'm comfortable with. I can feel my anxiety building as I think, "That's too much." But too much what? It's not a player control foul, as the defender's right to his own space hasn't really been violated. But I can't bring myself to pass on this play, because-in the moment-that type of contact seems like it just has to be a foul. So how do I resolve the tension? If I've gotten to the point that I'm definitely going to blow, I'm probably going to do the same thing I'll do eight or nine other times that game, which is take a foul on the defense. Now I've just missed a play because I was looking for an extra excuse not to do what I usually do (whistle the defender), even though the play shouldn't really have been a candidate for that type of call in the first place.
Supervisors and clinicians have recognized this type of offense bias for a while now and have given the matter serious treatment with their staffs. And the work is paying off, as plays like this are refereed much better overall than they were even a few years ago. They are correctly no-called far more often than not. Unfortunately, though, the general when-in-doubt-call-it-on-the-defense problem is being addressed, there's another, more subtle force at work that may be working against officials as we work post match-ups.
Over the last twenty years the college basketball has become too physical in the eyes of many of the people who oversee the game, and it seems that nearly every year one of the officiating points of emphasis is to clean up post play. I happen to agree that post play should be cleaner, but getting there is a process, one that's tough execute. The consistent emphasis on post play is definitely a necessary step in the right direction. But one thing that happens initially when emphasizing cleaner post play is that the referee's standard of what constitutes a foul in the post is ineluctably lowered, thus leading us to sometimes call fouls for levels of contact that, while significant, don't fall into the category of "rule-violating." This is an instance of the cleaner post bias.
What's important for us to recognize as officials is that off-ball match-ups entail fundamentally different physical actions and reactions from the on-ball sort, and we have to adjust our thinking accordingly. Cleaning up post play starts with doing a good job with off-ball post match-ups. Since there are necessarily more match-ups of this type, players will take a cue from how we call and referee these situations-this includes actually talking to them during live and dead-ball action. If both sides know that they're being held to a high standard off-the-ball, we'll also get the nice effect of defenders being less aggressive generally when they are guarding on-ball.
And even when judgment must come into play I've made my job easier because I'm calmer about the rhythm of the game, and thus less bothered by the type and level of contact discussed in our hypothetical. It is when I have already let too much off-ball contact go that I'm more likely to be pushed to my limit during on-ball contact, often leading to a bad foul.
So the next time you're watching a game, take some time to watch off-ball post play. Then ask yourself how well the on-ball post officiating squares with what you've seen. It's an interesting way to watch a game, and much more effective than ball-watching in understanding the thinking of the referees.