Should NBA referees call fouls objectively in playoff games?
I call them “rule of law” foul calls, because they are in accord with clearly defined standards for a foul call. In contrast, in the “good ol’ days” referees used to think: “I’m not going to let a foul call determine the outcome of this playoff game in the decisive moments.” So unless the defender really slugged the guy, or whacked his hand down when shooting, the refs would “let them play,” and the chips would fall as fate determined.
But Wednesday night I saw three critical foul calls (across two games) in the closing moments that were all “marginal fouls.” They were, in my opinion (and in the opinion of former referee Steve Javie), all legitimate foul calls. But just barely, and I am pretty sure that none of them would have been called fifteen years ago, or maybe not even five years ago. Bumping into a guy after he already missed his shot and the clock ran out? Is it a foul objectively speaking? Yes. Should it be called? Well…
The case against rule of law fouls is that games decided by the referees have less legitimacy, and that in turn hurts both the legitimacy and the popularity of the league. Even if it was “objectively a foul,” the fans either don’t know that, were unwilling to recognize that, or they may, like I, favor the good ol’ days when fouls were called less objectively and also less frequently in the closing moments of close games.
The case in favor of rule of law foul calls is that replays and social media make the truth easier to determine, and place extra burden on the refs to appear fair and consistent over time, to protect the legitimacy and popularity of the league. Furthermore, the heightened salience of racial issues encourages a more consistent standard to limit charges of discrimination, whether those charges are founded or not. It is more defensible to always call the same play the same way, regardless of the clock or the closeness of the score, which are ultimately somewhat subjective standards (just how close does the game have to be?).
So I recognize that rule of law foul calls may now be necessary, even if I do not myself prefer them.
One relevant point here is that with better recording and a wider dissemination of the recordings, the NBA has in fact moved much closer to the rule of law.
So it can be done, and perhaps others can do it too. Just like the spit testing.
Addendum from the comments: “The real reason must be gambling – they want gambling on the NBA to be legitimate, and this causes a lot of problems if the refs have a lot of latitude to make choices. The NBA has had problems with this.”