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Keith Strudler: Getting It Right

No matter who you cheer for in college basketball, no matter how busted your bracket is, whether your Kansas or Kentucky, we can all agree on one thing during this NCAA men’s college basketball tournament. And that is, we all can’t stand the officials. Now that’s a normal truism in sports. No one ever really likes the refs. At best, we might concede the challenge in their jobs, which is predicated upon applying highly objective standards to a universe of subjectivity. Where you are deliberately judged and second guessed every moment of your workday, and even on the best of days, half of your customers are going to be angry on every play. Where there is literally no glory, something well indicated by your assigned wardrobe – usually a black and white striped jersey that’s oddly reminiscent of prison outfits of the early 1900’s. And where the speed and intensity of the games you officiate make precision an absolute impossibility – so much that your job is routinely supplemented by video replay. So I think rational sports fans might objectively concede how hard it is to officiate a modern sporting event – at least when the game’s over.

For college basketball fans right now, I’m not so sure that’s true. That’s especially the case for Northwestern basketball fans, a species that didn’t even exist until about a month ago, when it became clear they’d make their first NCAA Tournament in the program’s history – and mind you, the program started in 1901 and the Tournament debuted in 1939. So March Madness has been a long time coming. Of course, it’s over now for the Wildcats after a second round loss to their region’s top seeded team Gonzaga, who nearly squandered an 18 point halftime lead to advance to the Sweet 16. But it’s not just that Northwestern came up a few points short – specifically six. It’s how it happened. Down five with under five minutes to go, Gonzaga’s Zach Collins put his hand through the rim to block a Northwestern shot. Which is textbook goaltending, and should have been an automatic basket and now a three point margin. Only the refs missed the call, which turned Northwestern coach Chris Collins into the Tasmanian Devil and precipitated an immediate technical foul – which the refs did not miss. Next thing you know, it’s a seven point Gonzaga cushion and the end of the road for the smart kids from Chicago.

The ensuing outrage has been considerable – perhaps amplified by the number of working broadcasting professionals that went to Northwestern. But to be fair, that wasn’t the only notable bad call of the tournament so far. Down one with 20 seconds to go in the first round, Seton Hall was called for a flagrant foul against Arkansas that seemed anything but – even if it could be explained by the odd letter of the law. Regardless, it ended any chance of a Seton Hall comeback, and probably ruined a few brackets. Other teams in the crosshairs of bad calls the first weekend include St. Mary’s, Rhode Island, and Arkansas – although I personally think they foul on every possession. It’s bad enough, or the perception is bad enough that it’s become a thing. In other words, sports writers are writing columns about officiating instead of the actual games. After the Northwestern game, an NCAA official actually came in to the press conference with a statement about the missed goaltend, a statement that Coach Collins painfully insisted he read out loud.

So what’s to be made of these poor arbiters of justice, the missed travels, phantom fouls, and captains of contradiction? I’d say three things. First, it’s important to remember that in the course of these 67, highly intensive, win-or-go-home games watched by millions of people, you can expect both missed calls and inconsistent officiating. There are way too many officials from different conferences with different norms to have anything resembling uniform performance, much less excellence. So to some extent, we just need to deal with that.

Second, we have to remember the inherent subjectivity of sport officiating, especially in a game like basketball. We may say we want precision and standardization, but in the context of an event that’s somewhere between bedlam and ballet, officiating is at best an inexact science.

And third, there are going to be a long list of potential solutions to these officiating problems. Those include higher paid officials, more rules, and even more replay. Some of them might work. But others will fall in the category of unintended consequences, of which the flagrant foul called on Seton Hall was a prime example, the product of a rule intended to force play on the ball. There is no perfect, or even nearly perfect solution to the problem of officiating. Except officials all need to take the advice given by Purdue head coach Matt Painter at halftime of his first round game – they need to do a better job at doing their job.

Besides that, we’ll simply have to live with the inexact science of calling NCAA Tournament basketball and together denounce the refs. In a tournament of a million different busted brackets, at least that something we can all agree on.

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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