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Why Basketball Officials Get Calls Wrong

By Edited May 19, 2016 0 0

By keith allison [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I've been a high school basketball official for several years.  I’ll be the first to admit that refs aren’t right 100% of the time.  However, we’re not wrong 100% of the time either. When you see an official blow a call, before you curse their unborn grandchildren try to think about a few things that might factor in.


Where was the official when the call was/wasn’t made?  Position is everything, and a slow motion replay from an overhead shot is a very different look from what the official sees in real time on the floor.  Refs can only call what they see, and won’t guess (generally) if they don’t know.  In other words, if you are wondering why they didn’t blow the whistle, they probably didn’t get a good look at the play.

Do you fully understand the rule?  Most fans have a pretty good understanding of the rules of the game.  However, the officials enforce the rules as they are written, and that can cause some frustration for fans.  Here are just a couple instances.  In high school, a defender must have legal guarding position in order for them to draw a charge.  There is no requirement that says they have to be stationary.  Secondly, there is contact in the game of basketball, not every bump is a foul.  The high school rulebook even defines incidental contact.


Some calls are just 50/50.  Players are very athletic and offensive players are just as likely to initiate contact as a defensive player.   Check your bias and understand that sometimes calls just won’t go your way.


Some rules are complicated.  There can be many parts to evaluate in a split second.  Did the player have possession?  Was the player airborne before or after the shot was released? Did the motion of shooting start before or after the contact/  And so on.  Sometimes back to back plays look exactly the same, but get a different call.  The official might not be inconsistent.  There may be some subtle factor that changes the nature of the call.


Finally, officials are human. I’ll admit that some officials are lazy.  Some are unprepared. Some are biased. Some just might be having a bad day. I hope that you don’t run into any of those, but they do exist.  The thing is, yelling at them isn’t going to change any call, or help your team in anyway. 


Officiating isn’t easy, and hopefully this article helps underscore why officials sometimes get calls wrong.

Are Basketball Playoff Games Rigged?

Many people remember the scandal in the NBA involving Tim Donaghy who served time after the FBI busted him for betting on games he reffed. 

There are some related questions that are still outstanding that I hope to answer.

  1. Do officials change the way they work during playoffs?  Yes! Well, sort of. In the beginning of the season there are usually new rules, or new rule interpretations that the officials are trying to implement in real life situations. Also there are often new officials getting the chance to develop some experience.  By the time playoffs roll around, players and officials are used to any new rules.  Also, playoff games are usually called by veteran officials. They will generally allow the players to dictate the outcome of the game.  In other words, playoff games will be more physical. 
  2. Do officials show bias toward star players? Yes! Well, sort of. Because star players are the most talented and elite on the court, they command a lot of attention naturally.  When they play against less talented players, they will end up getting fouled a lot just because the other guy can't keep up.  Also because of their gifts, they usually don't miss open shots.  So if a shot is off and a defender is in the area, the official must be crystal clear that there wasn't any contact. Similarly, star players usually are more physical.  They don't get knocked over easily.  If they end up on the floor, there is going to be a whistle.
  3. What about those calls late in the game? I know what it looks like.  A controversial call stops play in the final seconds, it gives a team that is down an advantage.  They can regroup, call a play, figure out a way to get that tying or winning basket.  I'll submit that the only thing that makes that call stand out is the timing.  Bad calls were likely ignored or dismissed earlier in the game, but now you can't move on.  The game is over.  There is no way to recover.  It is an unfortunate circumstance of the game.  Believe me when I say that the last thing an official wants to do is dictate how a game goes.  However, the guys with the whistle are tasked with seeing the game through the final buzzer, and if there something that needs to be called, it will.
Gaming the Game: The Story Behind the NBA Betting Scandal and the Gambler Who Made It Happen
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For more details on the 2007 scandal, Griffin's book gets into every detail.
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