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The Playcaller Returns

The Playcaller offered this to us yesterday before the ACC reported the reprimand and its explanation, quoted from the ACC's Karl Hicks' email to State: "According to Hess, `They were ejected for excessive demonstration on several calls as they came right up to the scorer's table. The policeman at the end of the FSU bench was warned that their continual excessive demonstration that incited the crowd would result in ejection.'"  As The Playcaller speculated, Hess had a problem with management of the game rather than anything that was specifically said.

We still find it compelling reading, and are looking forward to followup from The Playcaller.

Anyone who's ever sat close to the court at a college basketball game knows that officials hear obscenities hurled their way every night. And it's rare indeed for a fan to be ejected for talking to, or even yelling at an official, however profanely. So how do we square these facts with what happened Saturday in Raleigh when Karl Hess ejected two fans who by all accounts weren't even being profane or abusive? The easy answer is to lay everything at the feet of Hess: thin-skinned, arrogant, drunk on power, etc. But isn't that explanation a little too facile? After all, it's not like anyone perceives him to have changed his stripes recently. If he is who people think he is, wouldn't he have done something of this magnitude a long time ago? The guy didn't just make the big-time this season. He didn't just-now get comfortable enough in his position to do what he wants. Right?

*****

When the refereeing bug bites hard it does so in the exciting moments. The rush that comes from getting the block/charge play right at a critical point in a game is something that can't be accurately described, any more than the feelings of a game-winning buzzer-beater can. Like a great golf shot, it's the thing that makes you want to go out and do it again, and again, and again.Managing the administrative details of a game, on the other hand, isn't something officials get overly excited about, except our fear--fear of the suspensions and lost income that come with not doing that part of the job perfectly.

If a game starts off with a technical foul because something was wrong with the scorebook, every supervisor is going to blame the crew chief. "Why didn't you check the book early so that you could allow the coach time to get it fixed?" Referees don't physically mark scores, fouls, substitutions, or any of the other details that are noted at the table. Yet they're responsible for all of it. If a foul ends up being charged to the wrong player, good officials don't blame the scorer, they blame themselves. "Did I clear the players and allow the scorer a clear line of sight to me as I reported? Were my numerical signals clear? Did I consciously make eye contact with the scorer, or did I miss the fact that she was communicating with the scoreboard operator while I was signaling the numbers?" As referees, all of those things are our responsibility. That a school might fire its official scorer for poor performance isn't going to save the officials whose game was de-railed because of that scorer. For officials, there is no because of the scorer. There is only because I lacked attention to detail.

At the vast majority of D1 schools, table errors are extremely rare. The officials assigned to those games are highly, highly attuned to the game's details in ways that less-experienced or -skilled officials simply are not. In addition to better administrators on the court, D1 schools make sure that they have highly experienced, highly competent people staffing their scorer's tables. If you're a school's director of basketball operations, you don't want to lose a game because of a mistake by someone at your table; you don't want to hear a nationally broadcast discussion of the consistent game delays caused by people you hired.

Because the interests of the home school, table, and on-court officials are so well-aligned, referees consider those at the table part of their team, with responsibilities no less important than that of calling fouls. A good official is just as concerned with the scorers' and clock-operators' work environment as he is with his own. Absolutely nothing is worth compromising the ability of the table staff to do their jobs effectively. Any and every factor that might inhibit a table-member from executing his or her duties must be addressed and where possible, prevented.

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Chris Corchiani tweeted on Saturday night that he considers himself a fan. The public interpretation he seemed to be hoping for is that despite his retired Wolfpack jersey, he's not all that unique from other NC State supporters. He wanted everyone to believe that he and Tom Gugliotta were singled out and punished in a way that none of the other fans were, and unfairly so. That Corchiani wants to be perceived this way is understandable, but one wonders how the fans in the upper reaches of the RBC Center would feel about comparing his version of fandom to theirs.

As most university ticket managers will tell you, not all fans are created equal. At least, not all seat-privileges are. For example, there are different standards of decorum for those seated behind the home bench versus those in the student section. It's also not uncommon for schools to have a couple of rows of seats reserved behind the visitors' section. The conventional practice is that people who acquire those tickets are told in no uncertain terms that their primary responsibility is to provide a buffer between the visiting fans and the more spirited of home fans. These ticket holders are typically given strict instructions that they are not to negatively engage, much less taunt the visiting fans, even in the slightest. The enforcement mechanism tends to be that if the ticket office learns that a fan in that section hasn't lived up to the standard, the violator loses eligibility for those tickets in the future.

Schools aren't required to do that kind of thing (though I expect that virtually all do), but it's just plain common sense from a PR standpoint. Along the same lines, any school that fails to set standards and expectations for those holding tickets directly behind its scorer's table is asking for trouble. Fans seated there should be informed (and in most cases probably are) that clear channels of communication simply must be maintained between the officials and the staff at the table, and that sitting in that area implies a sharing of the responsibility to insure that part of the game. Does that mean people in the front row shouldn't be allowed to cheer? That those spectators shouldn't be able to make any noise at all for fear of distracting a scorer or referee? That they should never be allowed to loudly criticize a referee or a call? Of course not. But it must be acknowledged that fans sitting in that area are capable of impacting the administration of a game in ways that fans anywhere else in the arena simply are not. As such, when it comes to fan conduct no one should be surprised that the definitions of "extreme" and "excessive" (the most important words in the relevant part of Rule 10) aren't necessarily the same for everyone for every fan in the gym.

Many will dismiss this discussion as weak apologetics for people who should have thicker skin. But would the following heartbreak arise due to thin skin, or to something else?

During a timeout late in a tight game, an official goes to the scorer's table to ask how many time-outs State has left. Being slightly distracted by the vocal officiating critic seated immediately behind him, the official scorer looks down at the Wake side of the scorebook and responds, "One 'thirty' and no fulls." After breaking his huddle, Mark Gottfried asks that same official how many timeouts he has left, the official holds up one finger, and Gottfried relays that information to his team. You know where things go from here-State had actually already used their final timeout, but a player later requests one anyway. Technical foul (the rules provide absolutely no recourse here regardless of the unfairness of the thing), Wake makes both free throws and NC State ends up losing by a point.

If that kind of thing were to happen, there would be hell to pay, and rightly so. Maybe the scorer is suspended by the home school; maybe they even fire him. Maybe the home school looks into who it was seated behind the official scorer, and how he came to be seated there. But what's more certain than either of those things is that the whole officiating crew would be suspended for some number of games. In the post-game conversation with the crew, the supervisor would doubtless ask the following questions: Did you check what you heard at the table against what the scoreboard read? And if they were different, why didn't you delay things until you straightened it out? Why do you think the scorer didn't hear you clearly? Was it too loud? Were you not speaking loudly or clearly enough? Was there anything going on around the scorer that was distracting to either of you? If so, was it preventable? Was there anything you'd noticed earlier in the game that you might have been able to address? Did you address it, and if so, how?

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None of us will ever know exactly what Corchiani and Gugliotta said to draw their penalty. Maybe Hess overreacted and could have easily ignored it. But maybe, just maybe those two all-time ACC greats-possibly feeling empowered because of their hometown-hero status, and almost definitely feeling frustrated or even angry as they watched a disappointing blowout loss on the heels of a gut-wrenching defeat-were making the referees' jobs harder by consistently making the scorers' jobs harder. If that's what was going on, it's simply not okay. Such conduct impinges on the fair administration-and therefore the fair play-of the game, and must be addressed by officials. Could Hess have dealt with such a situation using gentler means? Of course he could have, but that shouldn't be the end of the analysis. Was this a situation that came to a boil over a couple of hour, or maybe just an overreaction to a single episode? If the former, what if anything had Hess done to try to address the matter? These are also questions that we won't ever have answered, but that makes them no less worthy of consideration.

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Everybody says it. Coaches, players, fans, writers, everybody. "Jersey color shouldn't matter. The particular player shouldn't matter. Time and score shouldn't matter. Just call the game you see in front of you, ignore everything else, and let the chips fall where they may." To this biased observer, that's exactly what Karl Hess was doing. Ignoring jersey color, ignoring time and score, ignoring the names on the retired jerseys. Just like everybody wants him to do, except when they don't.

Rather than strictly making a power play, Hess may have taken the action he did based on what he thought was in the best interest of a fairly administered contest. You don't have to agree with what he did. But there are people after this man's job. And no matter who's concerned, people whose jobs might be on the line deserve a fair hearing. Karl Hess deserves that no less than anyone else.

Next time I'll go over why he never had a chance.

The Playcaller can be reached at theplaycaller@gmail.com