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An Official Problem: Why natural and unnatural referee bias still dictates critical games

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“I think there’s too much professional wrestling in basketball.”

Los Angeles Lakers v Utah Jazz Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

When thinking of the NBA playoffs, we picture the heroic moments: the spectacular play of icons, the stunning come from behind victories and buzzer beaters.

On the flip side, many also think of those who come up short year after year and the players that continually fail to reach expectations.

While the play on the court and the storylines that follow go on to live in immortality, the game also has an association with officials unlike that of any other sport — their whistles can be just as important as any last second shot.

This year, for example, an average of 48.1 fouls were called per game. That’s 48 stoppages in 48 minutes as related to infractions registered by the three mediators assigned to each contest alone. While the NBA is said to have some of the best officials in professional sports, these calls in many instances can be seen as subjective and have dire consequences on the outcome of contests.

Pete Rose may be the most infamous athlete of all time associated with sports betting, but Tim Donaghy is a name most diehard fans can also readily associate with cheating. Many of you know his story by now; however, in case you need a refresher, you can find in-depth coverage of the scandal written by Scott Eden here.

“He (Donaghy) claims that he was winning 80 percent of his picks,” Tim Livingston, host and creator of Whistleblower Podcast told me. “If you’ve ever been to Vegas and win that much, you don’t stop. We think he was betting with more than two people. We think he was betting with a lot of other people, including possibly Scott Foster. It’s possible he may have been placing bets for Donaghy as well. Having visited Donaghy in Florida, he’s doing quite well. We’ll just leave it at that.”

The story grabbed national headlines and warranted an investigation by the FBI. This struck Livingston and he sought to learn Donaghy’s side of the scandal as well as whether or not the impropriety died with Donaghy’s career. He spent eight years investigating, even spending time with Donaghy and longtime friend Tommy Martino.

“The story has been bubbling as I got to know Tim Donaghy and learned his side of the story, but it goes back to when I played basketball as a kid,” Livingston continued. “As a youngster I had a hot temper and got thrown out of games. When I got a little older, I realized officials are human. If you want to get calls, you have to cozy up to them, make them your friend. I saw that as a flaw that can be exploited.”

Livingston’s narrative podcast, Whistleblower, an eight-year investigation into the NBA betting scandal just released this past month. Livingston previously worked on Wizards and Bullets, an investigation into the Washington Wizards’ “guns in the locker room.” He’s also currently in production or partnering at a later date with Gilbert Arenas, Rasheed Wallace, Bonzi Wells and Etop Udo-Ema on other podcasts.

“The NBA wanted the game to exist and thrive,” Livingston said in reference to the Donaghy scandal. “They didn’t want to necessarily investigate this incredibly dark thing that we love.”

Raja Bell expressed this sentiment on a recent episode of the NBA Ringer Show, when recalling a story from his time playing against Kobe Bryant.

“Call it straight,” he recounted Bryant telling the official.

He went on to score 24 points that night, one of the better scoring games of his career.

However, this somewhat harmless favoritism that can be tied to some of the game’s greatest stars is almost inevitable. While we’d like our officials to remain impartial, establishing relationships with players over years, even decades, is bound to earn the benefit of the doubt, or in a player like Draymond Green or Kevin Garnett’s case, quite the opposite.

But the inescapable fact that NBA officials have a shocking and overwhelming ability to dictate outcomes is unavoidable.

“As a fan, you want that variable (officials) to be as minimal as possible,” Livingston told me. “With baseball, the electronic strike zone is the last step in baseball to becoming impossible to manipulate. In the NBA, referees have a huge effect on the game.”

Let’s take a recent example.

After a shocking 15-point Game 1 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, Scott Foster was assigned to the Houston Rockets Game 2 in their current playoff series.

P.J. Tucker earned recognition for the way he defended both Anthony Davis and LeBron James in Game 1. His presence is critical to everything they do without the presence of a conventional center. On the offensive side of the floor, he’s been equally impressive, hitting nearly 38 percent of his threes through 11 games.

If you wanted to give the Lakers a distinct advantage, removing Tucker due to foul trouble would almost certainly tip the scales and avoid an almost impossible 2-0 disadvantage to overcome.

So, what happened? Tucker received his first foul 13 seconds into the game. 13 SECONDS. Tucker received his second foul at the 5:14 mark and was removed (foul featured above).

What happened next? The Lakers went on a 30-12 run before Tucker returned, down 42-21 midway through the second quarter.

“You think of Kings and Lakers, Dallas and Miami, countless games where it seemed like there was something more there,” Livingston recalled. “When Donaghy said what he said, it made a lot of sense to me. I think it made sense to a lot of people.”

Scott Foster called Game 2, and whistled the Rockets for 13 fouls to just five for the Lakers.

Now, you may think of this as just one instance and it didn’t prevent the Rockets from responding in Games 3 or 4. But imagine if the momentum hadn’t swung in those six minutes Tucker was off the floor, how differently the series may have transpired? If not for that 30-12 run, do the Rockets win Game 2? If so, teams that are up 2-0 are 51-5 all-time.

Let’s take another example involving our very own 2017-18 New Orleans Pelicans and the Kevin Durant-led Golden State Warriors.

Coming off the sensational 4-0 sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Pelicans were one of the more dangerous teams in the NBA. Jrue Holiday was emerging as a bonafide star and Anthony Davis was living up to the top-3 finish in both MVP and DPOY voting. Even Rajon Rondo and Nikola Mirotic were playing like elite-quality role players.

Game 1 was a decisive victory for the Warriors. Game 2, however, was a different story.

Through the first three games, the Warriors advantage at the free throw stripe was decisive, 85-32. In Game 2, it was 27-9.

Now, you may not find this to be odd considering the Pelicans notoriously went long stretches without foul calls in the latter half of the regular season and they were playing against the eventual NBA champions.

However, the data tells us something else entirely.

The Warriors were 12th out of 16 playoff teams in free throw attempts per game throughout the playoffs and 22nd in the entire NBA over the course of the regular season. The Pelicans were 17th.

The Pelicans returned home for Game 3 and won in decisive fashion in front of the Smoothie King crowd, 119-100.

If Game 2 is called more fairly, the Pelicans take a 2-1 advantage with Game 4 at home and momentum in their corner.

“It’s definitely still happening (sports curbing),” Livingston said. “The tools in a referee’s toolbox to determine a game are still the same. That was one of the revelations we found in episode 2 of Whistleblower.

“You and I having this conversation could be labeled by people as conspiracy theorists. But after where we get in episode 10, I don’t think the label conspiracy theorists (will exist). (I don’ think) the question of whether the NBA has a motive as to who wins and loses will exist anymore.”

“The Cradle of Basketball Refereeing”

When it comes to finding officials, as many as 14 (current, deceased or retired) can be traced back to Delaware County, Pennsylvania, a city where Scott Eden of ESPN describes the guys “having bookies like they’ve got dentists.” Donaghy came from that line of officials, including his father who worked the college beat, and his uncle Billy Oakes, who officiated NBA games for 12 years.

What’s so special about Delaware County? According to Scott Eden, it wasn’t just a hotbed for officials, it’s a hotbed for sports betting.

“According to Urban Dictionary, ‘there’s a 42:1 ratio when it comes’ to bars vs. libraries in the county,” wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer.

For more on the sports gambling in Delaware County, reference back to Scott Eden’s well-penned article or this account of Mayor Frank Rizzo from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Correct Calls

When fans typically associate poor officiating with referees, they think of blown calls — ie Bill Vinovich in the NFC Championship game.

However, there’s a far more sinister way of affecting games while using correct calls. Officials can dictate games using little known factors like illegal defense, moving screens, infringing the paint during foul shots. There are so many subtle ways officials can use judgment calls and still receive a high rating for the NBA. In fact, Scott Foster has some of the highest ratings among all NBA officials and players simply despise him.

“Donaghy was one of the highest rated officials during the scandal because he was making technically correct calls that most officials don’t make,” Livingston said. “NBA officiating is so subjecting. There can be an illegal screen called on nearly every possession.”

“A good referee’s responsible is to provide balance. Fixing a game today isn’t hard. It’s easy. If an official gives two quick fouls to a high-end role player, we can speculate, but we can’t prove it.”

As Livingston points out on his podcast, Foster and Donaghy were close personal friends at the height of the scandal. In fact, Donaghy placed 134 phone calls to Foster leading up to the end of his tenure which Livingston investigates and reports on his podcast.

How can the NBA fix this problem?

“It’s something that’s going to plague the NBA until they get it right,” Livingston said. “There are some systematic things they need to do to improve it. First and foremost, the officials cannot be employed by the NBA, something Phil Jackson and others have said for decades.”

“We interviewed George Karl, and he brought up a game that wasn’t even on our radar. 1993, Game 3, Western Conference Finals, the Suns shot 64 free throws. 64!”

“And the referees? Guess who?”

Now, there’s very little we can do to prove the NBA isn’t putting forth an equitable product. We can merely suggest that you watch with a discerning eye and determine for yourself.

Is there a way the game can be called more fairly? What measures can the NBA take to ensure an equitable process in determining games and outcomes? How can we prevent something like what happened to P.J. Tucker, a move that arguably swung the game before it started?

Do we want referees to possess the power to remove players like him from games, giving the benefit of a decided advantage to the opponent?

“I want people to listen to this story and ask themselves if the NBA is a fair competition or if it can be closer to something else? Whether it’s just wrestling or entertainment. What do we want? Livingston asked.”

“I think there’s too much professional wrestling in basketball.”

Thank you for reading. If you like what you’ve read, please consider listening to my conversation with Tim Livingston below. You can find his podcast @WhistleblowerTF on Twitter.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @PrestonEllis.