The Word From Above

"I don't ask for much, I only want trust; and you know it don't come easy." - Richard Starkey, 1970 via Northern Songs

In light of the ever increasing cries of the misinformed and aggrieved supporters of National Basketball Association franchises involved in the playoffs, I thought it prudent to give serious consideration to the true nature of the men and women charged with enforcing the rules of the sport, and the veracity of recent critisicm leveled in their direction. 

Though I could quietly fill the contents of this page with words lamenting the sad and unfortunate attention that has been stolen from the skill and athleticism of the men on the court, I feel it a better use of all of our time to dispell the rapidly growing myth of illegitimacy threatening to engulf the majesty of professional basketball. 

The preeminent (and some would posit, static) perspective of today's fan is that the avergage NBA game is, at some level, a corrupt and scripted endeavour, doomed to be decided by the biased, inept, or outright incompetent individuals assigned to referee the action on the hardwood. There are those who feel that every call or non-call is rooted in some deep-seeded, well-hidden motive of injustice targeted against their team. According to such arguments (if you could really call them that), each official has a franchise or player that he/she is responsible for promoting, at all costs, regardless of the actual actions of the players in uniform. To simpilfy: Referees call fouls (or omit obvious infractions) on players/teams because they don't like them, or it is in the best interest of the league and corporate sponsors to do so. Before you laugh, let us review the allegations as objectively as we can.

For the sake of posterity, we shall examine a popular series of events in a single game of the current playoff series between the Magic and the Cavaliers as an example of this method of thought.

Example #1 - Lebron drives to the hoop in the waning moments of the fourth quarter of a decisive playoff game, stumbles momentarily, and falls to the floor with a fraction of a second remaining on the clock. The whistle is blown, not based on the contact occuring between the feet of the king and the defender, but rather from the motives of the referee stationed underneath the goal. Corporate entities stand to gain considerable revenue if the marque star and MVP of the league advances, so the officials naturally assist in the process. 

Example #2 - An offical sees Dwight Howard entangled with Sideshow Bob underneath the basket during an attempted lob with half a second left in the game, and puts his whistle firmly in his pocket because David Stern pulled him aside before the game and made it clear that the world wants to see LeBron and Kobe in the finals. Superman is denied his rightful victory due to the corruption of the league and the greed of the sponsors. 

The thinking man can make his own determination as to the likelihood of the credibility of these theories, and hopefully will side with the tenents of logic and reason. Are the two calls wrong? Are they so obviously incorrect that the integrity of the outcome has been compromised?  Be careful how you answer.

Assuming, arguendo, that all men hold some bias in their hearts, can one ever say that an athletic contest has been wholly officiated on the up and up? Are we ever able to say that an official has acted without consideration of his/her own preferences?

In a word, no. The answer is as simple as it is, at first blush, unsettling. All officials, in all sports, have their own threshold for determining an infraction. There will never be a basketball game officiated without bias, without an error in judgment, without a mistake. Surely we can all agree this is true. The real question then becomes, are these flaws manifested in a conscious fashion? Essentially, are the referees actively employing their biases when they step out on the floor?

To answer in the affirmative is to break with the world of reality, and take the easy way out. The most convenient explanation for a fan that is dissatisfied with the outcome of a game is to zero in on a blown call adversely affecting his/her team, and exploit its impact on the contest. However, to do so is to ignore the obvious in favor of the ridiculous.

Consider this: what is more likely, that the foul (called or) not called on a play that happend in a split second could have gone either way, or that the falsity was deliberately charged based on sinister motives? Conspiracies are easy to believe in because they are almost always false, and by nature use circumstantial evidence to "prove" something that cannot be wholly disproven. Conspiracy theories prey upon our own internal biases and are mostly bereft of factual support.  

I digress. We are all guilty of shouting at an official on the screen when an injustice to our team has occured; the difference between the rational fan and the disgusting peddler of spite is that most reasonable people calm down in a few seconds and remember that no game and no official is perfect. All people make bad decisions. Calls can be wrong without the baggage of multi-million dollar conspiracies serving as motivation.

A man is but a man; as flawed and imperfect as the other members of his species, stripped of the capacity to see in a wholly objective fashion. Some people will never fall in love with the weight and style of Led Zeppelin, some will never read the last few lines of A Farewell to Arms and choke with emotion, and some will never take in the beauty of an impressionist masterpiece. We are all essentially alike, and at the same time individually unique. Our biases, whether subconscious or overt, are equally alike and varied. They may, at times, surface in moments of weakness, but to suggest they are acted upon during NBA playoff games is quite desperate. The truth can be a difficult thing to accept; sometimes it is hard to say, "we lost because we weren't good enough tonight." 



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