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Making The Call: The Complex Relationship between Referees and NBA Players

Written By: Maya Galupo

Edited By: Sarah Wingo

When thinking about factors that impact the outcome of basketball games, players, fans, and coaches may think of shooting, rebounds, or defensive matchups, but many times conversations turn toward the officials. In an ideal world, referees would never miss a call and with the increased ability to review plays, we should see this problem improve, but referees, like us, are bound to make mistakes.

The NBA works to protect referees by encouraging coaches and players to respect them and their work. It also benefits referees to develop mutual respect for the coaches and players as team rankings are an official part of their evaluations. According to ESPN, there are 74 referees whose performances are evaluated after each game. They are assessed by the NBA’s Referee Operations which uses a combination of metrics including team rankings, graded rankings from league analysts, and play-calling accuracy. Based on the overall scores, referees are either promoted or demoted. The top 36 are then chosen to officiate during the NBA playoffs and the others are done officiating for the season.

Basketball referees on court
Photo Credit: C. Morgan Engel

When looking at the relationships between players, coaches, and referees during the playoffs, tension is often high when questionable calls are made during games with close scores. There are numerous ways for players to get on a referee’s bad side, including complaining, asking for calls, having a poor reputation, or being known for being overly aggressive.

The repercussions for criticizing officials can lead to heavy fines and technical fouls, but that doesn’t stop many players and coaches from calling out referees when games are close, reputations are on the line, and teams are in the playoffs. In a past press conference, Milwaukee Bucks player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, contemplated whether to mention the officiating in a post-game press conference. However, he decided against it when he remembered the heavy fine he would likely receive for doing so.

Photo Credit: Sporting News

There are different ways that players can build a positive relationship with referees without causing concern about bias. Players might seek out the referees before the start of the game, approach a referee during the game to point out problematic calls or ask for clarification after a questionable call. While there is no one proven way for a player or coach to successfully advocate for themselves or their team, it is clear that the interactions between players and referees play a significant role in the morale of a game. We tend to assume that players and coaches are not likely to admit it, but are hoping that showing respect will impact the game in a positive way.

Officiating is needed to help keep games fair, so referees aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. In order to keep games entertaining and contribute to the uninterrupted flow of plays, the relationships between athletes and referees need to improve. We’ve witnessed times when referees and players have gotten into arguments on the court which have led to unnecessary fouls and the disruption of a game. Since we cannot change the outcome of previous games, we can encourage teams, players, and referees to do their part in ensuring games are played impartially and unbiased.

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