Saturday, October 30, 2010

Discretion has another name

And it's not Oscar Meyer.

I watched some opening night hoops the other day as the NBA season got underway. My interest didn't last very long. Just long enough to see that what passes for basketball in the NBA remains, sadly, an ugly, boring game to watch. That and the league in its definitely finite wisdom has seen fit to crack down on player expressions of frustration with the officiating by making any word or gesture that could be construed as an expression of frustration an offense punishable with a technical foul call. In the few minutes I watched there were 5 technical foul calls.
This was noteworthy on a couple of counts. As the latest move in the ongoing effort to spruce up the league's image and as exactly the wrong thing to do in the longer run because all it effectively does is add another dimension of discretion. Not too many years ago the NBA managed to (mostly) sweep under the rug a gambling scandal that saw one referee sent to prison along with the unproven allegations that others were also involved. This struck at the core of the league's legitimacy because if the officiating isn't fair and impartial the game stops being sport and morphs into spectacle or entertainment only. In response the league has largely tried to pretend there never was a problem and never will be. Which is probably the point of the new rule. Whatever residual lack of trust the public may have (or not have) in the officials is reinforced (or undermined) by public displays from the players. The practical result will be lots of silly technical foul calls for a few weeks which will slowly peter out until the calls are only made occasionally. This will happen because all those calls are annoying, break the flow of the game and continue to draw attention to the fact players sometimes think the refs missed a call (or three or ten.) The goal isn't to make the call, it's to reduce the incidence of player expressions. Eventually the technical fouls will be called purely at the ref's discretion (despite how the rule may read.)

I know what your thinking; when did VFTD drop paintball and switch to basketball? Have no fear, that ain't ever going to happen. It's just that the situation reminded me of a paintball counterpart and I thought it might help me make my point if I did it with an indirect example. Even though it's the 'Off Season' there's never a good time to talk about officiating or the referees it seems. (This is where your intrepid blogger--that would be me--throws caution to the wind and carries on regardless.)

Despite the league's intentions and efforts in recent seasons to standardize top to bottom there remain a few idiosyncrasies in the pro division when it comes to rules. The one I have in mind is the no talking, no gesturing rule. (Has a light gone on yet?) There have been rules against communicating after you're eliminated forever. That's not what I'm talking about--an neither is the rule in question. The rule addresses what was once a grey area. Sure, you can't communicate anything about the ongoing game after you're eliminated (and there's even an exception to that) but that never really considered things like questioning the call, expressions of frustrations or cursing under your breath as you walk off the field, etc. The league decided there was too much player expression going on after elimination so they made it an infraction punishable as a minor. Since the real purpose was to minimize the incidence of player outbursts enforcement was near universal initially and has since trickled down to referee's discretion.

Discretion sounds neutral. Even reasoned. Thoughtful perhaps. But it has synonyms, at least in a sports context. What do you call referee's discretion when the penalty is called one time in three infractions? Or twice as often against one team as another? Let's say you are a member of team A. If only members of your team are penalized for violating the no talking, no gesturing rule despite obvious infractions from the other team is that purely the referee's discretion? Or that some players don't get called for the same violations that others do? Are you likely to describe those calls as something other than discretion? Favoritism? Bias?

Part of the problem is the point of the rule was intended to control player behavior--not call every infraction despite how the rule reads--but when the officials don't call every infraction they are using discretion which may or may not be honestly intended but cannot be other than bias or favoritism in action. See how that works? (Or doesn't?)


Reiner Schafer said...

I agree that rules like those in your post, if left to the referees discretion end up producing just as much or more negatives than the positive they are supposed to have been put in place in the first place.

The NHL did something similar a few years ago (about 3 years ago I think) when they stepped up enforcement of holding onto players and interfering. The thought was that the minor holding and interfering of players was slowing down the pace of the game, mostly slowing down the stars of the game. Players always know which players on the other team are the most lethal and need to be "defended" against the most. Rules were put in lace that even minor holds and interfering were called.

What happened at first is very much what you are describing is currently happening the NBA (sorry, I don't watch NBA). The flow of the game was interrupted much too often and the result was counterproductive. Players were used to playing the style they had played for many years, and thus were penalized frequently. It took a good part of the first season for players to get used to the fact that they couldn't put their arm around another player for example or they would be called for it. To the NHL's credit, referees were not told to loosen the reigns though. They held tough and those new rules are still enforced just as strictly as they were when first introduced. However, the players have gotten used to it. The game is now much quicker than it used to be and there is much less interference of other players on the ice. I believe viewership has increased since the change as well (that's just a gut feeling I have though).

Rules should be rules and should be enforced. Very little should be left up to a referees discretion, in any sport. Players should need to adapt to rules. Rules should not be changed for players or referees.As much as possible, gray areas should be eliminated.

Anonymous said...

I agree gray area rules are overall not a good thing. As a ref i always felt the need to enforce every rule anytime i saw it violated. I felt by doing that no team could complain at least about me because i set a precedence as a quote unquote strict ref.

the kind of rules that scare me are rule like the new enforcement of the no helmet to helmet rule. I fully believe in the rule but it seems like more often then not it is used to punish players that commited no actual foul. It seems like it is messing up the game because players ae scared to hit now which makes for a sloppier less pleasing game

Anonymous said...

The best game in town is an honest game... Eliminating the grey area's can only help the game, Makes the refs job better, players know whats expected and the spectators have a game they can understand
Thanks everyone who makes an effort to ref, its a tought thankless job.
The big events do a pretty good job with reffing, its the smaller events that may be a problem, as a local field hosts a tournament and the refs cater to there friends teams . Its sad to hear young teams not wanting to play events because they feel there's a refing problem and wont get a fair shake.
Having seasoned refs with traing is great and the psp / nppl have mad clinics available to help grow quality refs.
clear cut rules and seasoned refs would be a great step forward.
I think the spctators would find the game more appealing also, the down side is we have so many formats now
One last thought is Pro paintball lets say like baseball needs to be the same game for the pro's as well as the little kid just getting started and has to be affordable. Thers no way little Johnny can afford X ball , he may be able to play , lets say 5 man. Can he grow to play X ball sure. For me its players / teams with skill vs player / teams with skill eliminate the other and win so which rule book we use is up to you.
Clear cut rules, seasoned reffing and one format that evolves around team play that good for all ages

Mark790.06 said...

I have no problem with "referees discretion" as long as it is accompanied with "as it pertains to the players' infraction having an effect on the game"
In my little ole local tourney series, I witnessed a Race to 2 semifinal game where a player outside the net was curiously scratching his head while making a less than subtle pointing signal with his elbow. I waited for the 3rd and deciding game to see if it would be repeated and it was. I instructed one of my refs to pull the player being signaled to.
The game eventually came down to a 1 on 1 and I began to worry that the cheating team might still win the game and move on to the finals, but the thought of arbitrarily pulling players so that the outcome would be preordained i.e. the cheating team always loses seemed absurd upon reflection, especially if the other team was so inept as to squander the man advantage, it then dawned on me that the players still decide the outcome and that's how I, an everyone, (should) want it.

Like the few who have complained about getting major penalties for pack hits, when I have a problem with many of the minor penalties being called for the same infraction.
We had a player run to the D corner OTB at Cup. A ref was in position to see the hit. The player running full out got hit on the edge of a pod spraying a v shaped mark across 3 other pods. It was a huge mark, but no way it could have been felt by our player. The ref reacted as he should have and made it to our player by the time he shot, perhaps, 8 balls. A minor was called. But it begs the question: Did those 8 paintballs our player shot after being eliminated, have an equal effect on the game than the ref did by pulling an extra player?

T said...

Honestly, after this season of PRO (in particular Cup where we scouted and videoed over 20 Pro matches)the idea of a website that monitors the reffing in the Pro division, grades out ref performances, and video highlights the good with the bad calls is on my check into list.

Baca Loco said...

I understand where you're coming from so let me take a swipe at substituting interpretation for discretion. Since the written rule will almost always fall short of fulfilling all the real world requirements what I would like to see is a top down league interpretation of how a particular rule is called. That interpretation can have whatever "discretion" the league sees fit built into it but would hopefully result in more uniformity and consistency on the field.

As to your concern about the infraction meriting the penalty -- there's not a lot of options in paintball right now and even (especially) at the MLP level the trend is to simplify.

In the webcast era the league had all the ref stats available to them and on the pro field Tony keeps track of his refs for evaluation purposes but we've never had access to any of that--even after the fact. Admittedly it's a difficult balancing act for the league. There must be institutional support of the officials by the league but not blind, deaf and dumb support. Of course even at the league level there limited resources for evaluation, training and ongoing development and/or pruning.