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Keith Strudler: Blame The Refs

You can make several superlative claims about Monday night’s men’s NCAA Division I basketball title game, where Duke defeated Wisconsin, and the entirety of this year’s men’s Final Four, which saw the end of Kentucky’s undefeated season. For example, it was one of the most intensely played series in recent memory, at times resembling a football game more than the game Naismith envisioned. It was also one of the youngest, at least for Duke and Kentucky, which were constructed primarily of first-year players headed straight for the NBA, or one-and-done as the common pejorative vernacular goes. And it was one of the most competitive events in recent times, with two of the three games essentially a toss-up.

And there’s one other value statement we’ve heard about these games. The officiating was, for lack of a better term, bad. That isn’t simply my untrained opinion, but rather the analysis of journalists and broadcasters covering the event, not to mention the participating head coaches, who of course bring a bias the size of Jupiter to the mix.  But regardless of perspective, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan was right in critiquing the ref’s inconsistencies after the title game, even if perhaps he benefited by their ineptitude two nights prior.

The Final Four was marked by a few notable missed calls that went beyond errors in judgement. In the Kentucky/Wisconsin semi-final, the refs ignored a flagrant foul against the Wildcats, then evened the score by allowing a Wisconsin basket after the shot clock had expired. In the waning moments of the final game, the refs awarded Duke a ball that appeared to fall out of bounds off the fingers of one of their players. And the foul calls seemed to shift wildly from the first half to the second, where the game went from finesse to physical, something Ryan denounced in his critical post-game press conference.

In all prominent missed calls, refs had the full use of review technology, which strangely didn’t seem to help. In fact, in one particular missed call, the refs admitted to not watching the camera angles available to the entire viewing public. In others, refs appeared either unable or unwilling to change calls that needed neither interpretation nor particular nuance. Perhaps the only consistency to the officiating was its inconsistency.

It's not unusual to blame the refs, fairly or unfairly, in the wake of any major sporting event. Though it’s often unwarranted, refs have been blamed for impacting the outcome of games and championships, something we'd like done only by those more essential to the sporting product -- like players and coaches. That cacophony of critique has only crescendoed in the digital age, where everyone with a cell phone can access countless contradictions to the official's typically split second decisions. Imagine having someone sit on top of you at work every day with 10 video cameras, then reviewing it on SportsCenter. That's what it is to be a ref in a major sporting event.

It's entirely possible that this sub-par officiating, to the extent it was, impacted the final outcome of either close game in the Final Four. We’ll never know. Regardless, this performance review does raise two issues.

First, it's arguable that human refs are no longer fit for the age of 1's and 0's, where everything can be done better by machines. Despite digital augmentation of the process – say with replays and sonar and all that, it’s still a human being that makes the call. And in this case, perhaps the wrong one. It’s the same argument we’re having about self-driving cars right now. Who do you really want at the wheel?

Second, and related, this isn’t just about bad officiating at this Final Four. It’s about the human imperfection of sport and its oversight. Part of the appeal of sport, especially if you talk to baseball purists, is the humanistic element of officiating. The fact that this world isn’t black and white, but rather a continuum of acceptance. It’s the nuanced difference between a block and a charge, or a strike and a ball. That has always been a part of sports’ great appeal, part of what makes it not a video game.

Of course, we could change all that. In the no-so-foreseeable future, if not the present, everything from a strike zone to and end zone could be automated, overseen by computers and robots, like sports’ version of the Terminator. We could get all the calls right, because as your IT person reminds you, humans make errors, computers don’t.

Given the choice, I think people would take the Final Four’s imperfections over that sterility. They’ll take the bad ump and the blown call over Roboref. Because in the end, perfection is one superlative sports fans, oddly enough and certainly contrary to the current discourse, can live without.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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