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Refs are always fair . . . right?

For the last two years I’ve spent a couple of weeks each summer coaching at basketball camps for middle school kids. I like to think that I’m teaching the kids something about more than simply basketball. I like to think that at heart I’m righteous and honourable, at least until I referee a basketball game between two teams of children and I realize how morally corrupt I have become.

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By Paul Esau (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: November 21, 2012

For the last two years I’ve spent a couple of weeks each summer coaching at basketball camps for middle school kids. It’s a fun job that allows me to indulge my love of sports, my juvenile sense of humour and my desire to make children arbitrarily do push-ups.

Sometimes I stand there and watch their pre-pubescent, noodle-like arms shake and strain as they push against gravity, and I wonder how 12-year-old me would have reacted to my current coaching style. I remember my (then) absolute belief in the fairness and justice of the world, and the horror which inequality inspired in my small, somewhat chubby breast. I like to think that (despite the push-ups) I show more empathy than some of the coaches I had as a kid. I like to think that I’m teaching the kids something about more than simply basketball. I like to think that at heart I’m righteous and honourable.

That is what I like to think, until I referee a basketball game between two teams of children and I realize how morally corrupt I have become.

It’s not that I don’t try to be fair; it’s just that it’s so much easier to not be. Ten kids running around with a ball is chaotic enough before you try to enforce the intricacy of rules on the situation, and one man with two eyes is simply not enough to see every pinch, shove, poke, prod, trip or travel. Every time I blow the whistle I know someone will feel slighted, that some little child is being exposed to the brokenness of the world, and I quickly become desensitized to it. Often, I’m completely aware that I’ve made the wrong call, and yet I refuse to admit my mistake. Sometimes I call a foul only because the kid is clumsy and uncoordinated and I expect him to foul, and because his smaller, faster, more skilled opponent simply outclassed him.

But I try not to admit that in public.

Which is why, in an interview with a CIS referee a few weeks ago, I asked him for his advice on officiating a basketball game fairly and justly and professionally.

“We [the refs] want the best players to play and not be hindered,” is one of the things he told me, “so that’s what we’re looking for: things that players are doing to hinder the better players, holding them [and] impeding their progress.”

Wow, I thought, that’s quite a statement. You mean that at the highest level of Canadian basketball, officiated by refs who are at the top of their profession, players are given preference based upon skill? I was told referees were employed to enforce the rules of the game impartially, not perpetuate some sort of NBA-style nepotism in which the star players take three-step lay ups and change their surnames to “World Peace”! No wonder I couldn’t get a break on the court in high school! No wonder everyone hates referees!

And yet, this statement was made by one of the more reliable referees in the Canada West, a man with a number of credentials under his belt and a world-class ability to officiate basketball. Which means that, not only is this the accepted system, but it’s also been embraced by the experts in the field. Referees at the CIS level are perfectly fine with deciding on the “best” players and officiating the game to suit those players rather than aspiring to an ironclad law of fairness.

Having had a week to mull over this ref’s statement and discuss it with friends coaching at various levels, I’ve come to doubt whether “fair” should indeed be the absolute goal of officiating. I mean, every member of both teams (and every fan in the audience) hopes that each game will be reffed “fairly,” but their idea of what constitutes fairness already differs from the meaning of the word.

Do we want every foul, every single minor infraction to be called? Do we want the fouls to be assigned evenly between teams? Do we want the fourth or fifth (disqualifying) personal foul to be given as easily as the first? Do we really want much of the current physical contact between post players eliminated because it technically violates the rulebook?

No, we don’t, which means that already we’re prepared to accept officiating which deviates from strict fairness. We’re also prepared to accept that certain decisions, such as that between calling a block and a charge, are weighted towards the block and thus against the poor defender because of the difficulty of making that call. And we’re willing to admit that because of traditional strategies such as “hack-a-Shaq,” the treatment of star players on the court should be given special attention.

We just don’t want to stop claiming that it’s “fair.”

So, I’ve decided that after much deliberation, I agree with the CIS referee. Next summer when I’m back in the gym with a whistle between my teeth, I’m going to be even less apologetic than before. “I’m sorry kids,” I’ll say, “but basketball is like life in that it just ain’t fair. Some people are fast, some people are slow, some people crumble under pressure, and the odds are that none of you will ever make the NBA. Anybody who tells you differently is probably selling Air Jordans.”

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