Technically Speaking

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A big storyline entering this season was the NBA’s tweaking of it’s technical foul policy. The new guidelines enumerated specific actions as worthy of a technical:

  • Players making aggressive gestures, such as air punches, anywhere on the court
  • Demonstrative disagreement, such as when a player incredulously raises his hands, or smacks his own arm to demonstrate how he was fouled
  • Running directly at an official to complain about a call
  • Excessive inquiries about a call, even in a civilized tone

There was plenty of discussion about the new policy, most of it with a negative slant. The prevailing opinion seemed to be that this would remove legitimate emotional reactions from the game; reactions that were natural, unlikely to be controlled, and which had always been a part of the game. This all came to a head in the  preseason, when Kevin Garnett was ejected for arguing a call; arguing in a manner that certainly would not have resulted in an ejection in years past. The policy has continued to be implemented. However, the public outcry and attention paid to it has largely died away.

929 technical fouls have been handed out to players this season, a significant increase over the 730 meted out last year. It’s not unexpected however, given the new enforcement policy. What has been surprising is the number of technicals fouls which have been rescinded by the league, after the fact. With just one night of action remaining in the regular season, 67 technicals have been rescinded. I don’t have the total for last year to make a comparison, but that number seems extremely high. In fact, it represents 7.2% of all the technical fouls assessed to players this season.

Since the Tim Donaghy scandal, the NBA has taken several steps (many superficial) to address the issue of fan confidence in officiating. If you asked David Stern, I’m sure he would acknowledge the fact that NBA referees do sometimes make mistakes. I would also guess that he would argue their rate of errors is fewer than 1 in 100. That’s why I find it so bizarre that 67 technical fouls have been rescinded. It seems to me, to be a tacit admission by the league that 7.2% of the technical fouls called on players this season were a mistake. For an organization that has demonstrated an almost pathological unwillingness to publicly engage in self-criticism, this seems wholly incongruous and out of character.

I realize errors in assessing technical fouls are a different animal than errors in calling things like goaltending or double-dribbling. These calls theoretically have no component of subjectivity. Goaltending and double-dribbling are explicitly defined in the NBA rulebook; there is no gray area on what does or does not constitute each of those infractions. Occassionally, subjectivity enters the equation when an official has to process visual information, and determine if what they saw fit that description.

When it comes to technical fouls, ambiguity is literally written into the rulebook. Here’s a few quotes from the section on technical fouls, italics and bolding are mine.

  • “Running tirades, continuous criticism or griping may be sufficient cause to assess a technical.”
  • “Assessment of a technical foul shall be avoided whenever and wherever possible; but,when necessary they are to be assessed without delay or procrastination.”
  • “A technical foul(s) may be assessed to any player on the court or anyone seated on the bench for conduct which, in the opinion of an official, is detrimental to the game.”

Perhaps I’m reading these items wrong, but they seem to be explicitly allowing officials to use their own judgement in deciding when to assess a technical foul. So, by extension, when the league rescinds a technical foul they are not impuning a referee’s objective observation skills, instead they are impuning their subjective judgement on whether a situation fits any number of amibiguous criteria.

The other craw-sticking point is that it seemed the NBA instituted their new guidelines this summer in an effort to standardize the assessing of technical fouls, and remove some of the subjective judgements officials were being asked to make. From my own observations, it would seem the calling of technicals this season has been fairly consistent, incorporating the new guidelines. But by rescinding so many, the league is quietly undermining that consistency.

It doesn’t help that the league is not in the habit of offerring explanations of why particular technicals were rescinded. This is probably a good thing since I can’t see how much of the current wording in the rulebook could be used to construct a compelling argument to override an official’s decision in the flow of a game.

Conspiracy theorists and small-market purists argue that the rescinding of technicals is an underhanded way for the league to favor it’s stars. There is not much evidence to support that argument. Dwight Howard has had four technicals rescinded this season. So has Tyson Chandler. Chris Paul has had two technicals rescinded. So has Chris Wilcox. None of Dwyane Wade‘s 12 technical fouls have been taken away.

The fact that the system doesn’t reflect overt favoritism for stars doesn’t mean there’s not a problem. One mistake out of a hundred could be acceptable. I don’t feel comfortable saying the same thing about seven mistakes out of a hundred. The league seemed to be taking steps to solve the problem by releasing these more explicit guidelines before the season started. However, they’ve shot themselves in the foot 67 times, by withdrawing technical fouls without explaining why those cases didn’t fit into their guidelines. As I argued above, I’m not sure how they could even put together rational explanations.

As I see it there are two solutions. They can either create a written definition of technical fouls which leaves no room for individual interpretation. The second is that they publicly place complete trust in the officials, and stop rescinding technicals in all but the most grevious instances of error. I’m not sure how the first option could be feasibly implemented, which leaves us with the second.

On the surface, it doesn’t appear the league sees a problem with the current system. I see the problem as a lack of trust. The way the rules are written implies that the league trusts the officials to make the right call with regards to technicals. The 67 rescinded fouls implies that they don’t. The NBA keeps asking us, as fans, to believe that they have the “best officials in the world.” I want to believe that, I really do. So why do they insist on making me feel like they don’t even believe their own claims?


1 Comment

Filed under NBA, Statistical Analysis

One response to “Technically Speaking

  1. sportsattitudes

    Excellent post. I don’t think the rescinded quantity has been discussed enough in the media. It is almost as if it has become accepted a “T” is a “T” in the moment only and doesn’t become finalized until days later. Confidence in officiating was something you thought would be at the top of the image list after the – albeit small – “cheating” scandal. Best officials in the world…possibly…if you let their initial judgement be the law of the land and not subject it to a NYC jury.

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