Rules, Ratings, and Referees 

Is the fix on in the NBA and MLB?

Is the fix on in the NBA and MLB?

If the NBA were a soviet-style state, one of Commissar, er, Commissioner David Stern’s first dicta this summer doubtless would be quietly to exile Ray Allen to a gulag or a nuthouse. In other words, the league would mandate that Allen be dealt to the Vancouver Grizzlies.

Allen’s crime, depending on your point of view, either would be attempting to undermine the NBA’s credibility or attempting to restore it. Either way, it represented a treasonable offense in the eyes of the league office.

After his Milwaukee Bucks lost a pivotal game to Philadelphia in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, Allen said that the league preferred to see the 76ers meet the Lakers in the championship series. Maybe he was momentarily overcome by anger at the officiating, or maybe it was pure lucidity, or maybe Ray-Ray was just articulating the obvious.

Of course Stern and his NBA poobahs wanted an L.A.-Philadelphia finals. In their heart of hearts, which is located just behind the bank vault and next to the Nielsen office, every professional sports league would prefer the higher TV ratings from a series between megamarket teams than between those from provincial capitals like Milwaukee and San Antonio.

Allen’s statement, however, carried a much more menacing implication: That the NBA’s dirty little druthers dictated how the NBA’s referees called the Sixers-Bucks series. To Allen and a lot of the other Bucks, it seemed that the zebras were engaged in what we traffic scofflaws like to call selective enforcement.

Now, you’d be right to point out some of the inconvenient holes in Allen’s Mulderian thinking. The Bucks, for one thing, were their own worst enemy. They drew costly technical fouls that may have cost them one game. Scott Williams won his bad self a suspension for the decisive seventh game by leveling Allen Iverson with a cheap shot from his shoulder. The Bucks missed key free throws, key rebounds, and all kinds of opportunities. Before blaming anyone else, they’d do well to find a mirror.

Neverthleless, if Bro. Stern wants to know why some his own players—to say nothing of legions of beer-guzzling fans in their recliners—wonder about the integrity of his league, he, too, should consult a looking glass. The NBA’s games may not be fixed, but that doesn’t mean they’re not broken.

The league has a credibility gap that often makes you wonder, maybe, just a little, even if you know better, whether things aren’t on the level. The gap exists because the rulers of the NBA choose to place entertainment value over a strict interpretation of the rules.

Somebody in the penthouse office concluded a long time ago that viewers might prefer not to see the world’s best players whistled for something as petty as traveling, especially if the whistles prevented those players from completing spectacular moves. So, for the most part, NBA refs simply pretend that traveling, like gas-passing among swanky women at the Swan Ball, simply does not exist.

And when it comes to applying the rules to superstars, the zebras have long been more liberal than Ted Kennedy after a two-week bender. Instead, they seem to follow a set of their own unwritten rules.

Unwritten rule No.1: Superstars travel even less frequently than ordinary players, who, of course, almost never travel. Dr. J, great as he was, might not be in the hall of fame had the refs not allowed him an extra step so that he could complete his jaw-dropping dunks.

Unwritten rule No.2: A superstar is almost always fouled when driving to the basket, though a journeyman player is not. The corollary is Unwritten Rule No. 3, which stipulates that, when a superstar commits a foul, any journeyman teammate within arm’s reach will receive the foul instead. We might also call this the “Backup Center” rule. By this standard, expendable guys like Will Perdue and Matt Geiger can pick up six fouls in six minutes, while stars like Shaq and Karl Malone can get away with 11 or 12 such hacks.

Speaking of Shaq: Hardly anyone seriously thinks the 76ers are a better team than the Lakers, or that O’Neal isn’t the game’s most dominant player, or that the refs determined the champion. Still, the officiating in the Finals was so laughably skewed in favor of Shaq that conspiracy buffs could spend years sorting through the game footage like a latter-day Zapruder film.

Time after time, O’Neal would begin his move across the lane by conspicuously shuffling his very conspicuous feet. Meanwhile, with an impunity seldom seen outside of professional wrestling, officials allowed O’Neal to use his massive body to knock defenders out of the way. On several notable occasions, he lowered his shoulder into Philadelphia’s Dikembe Motumbo with such force that he lifted Motumbo’s feet off the ground. Other times, when he wasn’t traveling, Shaq would spin toward the hoop and clear out defenders with an elbow to the face.

In ref parlance, there’s a term for this move: It’s called charging. With the consistency of the sunrise, refs call charges on ordinary players who lead with an elbow or clear out space with their shoulder. In the NBA Finals, the zebras made Shaq unstoppable by almost entirely neglecting to apply the rulebook standard to him. And only once did they call a charge at crunch time: In Game 3, when O’Neal busted Mutombo in the mouth, then bowled him over on the way to the hoop. Even then, Shaq complained—probably because the refs had let him get by with similar moves so often before.

Making these observations does not require you to believe that the league had preordained the outcome or that the refs had action on the games in Vegas. They were simply following the old unwritten rules, which are complicated by Shaq’s gargantuan size and power (when a guy can knock you over with just a glancing blow, for instance, does that mean every knockdown is a charge?). Still, by fudging the rules of the game for the sake of enhanced excitement, the refs inevitably leave the door open for those who want to discern some sinister purpose.

Baseball suffers from a similar problem. In recent years, umpires have claimed freedom to make up their own strike zones while proclaiming a doctrine of infallibility. Baseball’s rulebook says that the strike zone extends from the knees to a point midway between the batter’s belt and armpits. But until this season, when the major leagues began demanding that this definition be enforced, umpires almost never called strikes on pitches above the belt. Many umps created strike zones that extended beyond the plate. And, of course, as in basketball, superstars receive preferential treatment (e.g., if A-Rod doesn’t swing, it’s not a strike).

But when a strike is not a strike, a walk is not a walk, and a foul is not a foul, a game’s credibility suffers. And when a game loses fans’ trust, it also loses some of their interest, no matter how much the rule-fudges are supposed to contribute to the excitement.

You have to wonder whether it’s just coincidence that ratings for the NBA and Major League Baseball are suffering. The NFL is booming. Maybe, again, it’s just coincidence, but the NFL allows refs to review replays, on the premise that it’s preferable to correct errors than deny them.

No refs can make every call or perfectly enforce every rule every time. But the NBA doesn’t even try. Until they do, there’ll be plenty more questions from guys like Ray Allen about the league’s honesty, and precious few satisfactory answers.

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