On the opening night of this seasons NBL there was a post on Facebook by a prominent coach with both WNBL and NBL experience. He made comment on the fact that a player had travelled seven times in the one play phase in front of the referees and nothing had been called.
The referees tend to call this “letting the game flow” and “not nit picking” and they use their own judgement to decide whether a foul or violation is worth calling for the interruption to the flow of the game that blowing their whistle makes. They also call this “advantage or disadvantage” where they decide whether the player who committed the crime got an unfair advantage by breaking one of the rules.
I’m doubt the referees have enough consistent understanding of the advantages and disadvantages that can occur in a game to decide what it appropriate to let go and what is appropriate to call. They simply do not understand the game well enough to make that decision, most have not even played the game. In my opinion the rules are hard enough to understand anyway, so if they see a violation or a foul then they should blow their whistle. The more they can see it as black and white and eliminate the grey then the less frustration they are going to cause for coaches, players and fans.
In the AFL the players have the option of playing on if they see an advantage in play after a free kick has been called and if they decide to play on then the umpire calls advantage – but they don’t ignore the call, they make the call and then the players get to choose instantly whether to go on or not. I doubt that would work in basketball and I’m not suggesting it would. It just highlights that even at the top level of another high profile sport they enforce the rules, all the rules.
I can remember playing a game in Cairns some years ago, we had been down several points but were coming back towards the end of the game with some steals and great full court pressure. With another steal and layup, we had got it back to only 2 points down with only about 10 seconds remaining. Cairns grabbed the ball after the basket and their player was looking to inbound the ball, the pressure was on and he was having difficulty finding an open man, he was holding it for 3, 4 5 seconds and he turned to the referee and signalled for a time out (he was one of their imports) the referee, Vaughn Mayberry I think it was, blew his whistle, realised the guy couldn’t call a time out, advised him he couldn’t call a timeout and decided to give him back the ball!!! But now that he had blew his whistle, the Cairns coach could now call a time out. So instead of a five second violation, which was the right call, the referee decided it was just an innocent mistake by the player and gave them back the ball. The call decided the game, following the time out and of course the bench technical foul on me that followed we lost the game.
Here is what the official basketball rules state about the referees and their options with regard to advantage and disadvantage;
When deciding on a personal contact or violation, the officials shall, in each instance, have regard to and weigh up the following fundamental principles:
• The spirit and intent of the rules and the need to uphold the integrity of the game.
This deals with the Integrity of the game. I would expect that at the highest level of the sport in Australia – the NBL & WNBL– where the game is being viewed by people of all age groups and levels of understand it would make sense to enforce the rules as efficiently as possible. Once someone feels they have a grasp of what a travel is then it must be confusing to not see such a violation being called at the highest level of the game.
• Consistency in application of the concept of 'advantage/disadvantage'. The officials should not seek to interrupt the flow of the game unnecessarily in order to penalise incidental personal contact which does not give the player responsible an advantage nor place his opponent at a disadvantage.
It is important to point out here that the rules state to use “advantage/disadvantage in incidental personal contact situations. It does NOT state to use this leniency with regard to violations. Therefore, the argument that the rules give the referees the option of trying to decide whether an unfair advantage occurred by a player travelling is NOT covered by the rules.
• Consistency in the application of common sense to each game, bearing in mind the abilities of the players concerned and their attitude and conduct during the game.
One should expect that at the highest level of the game it should be reasonable to expect the highest level of skill, application and interpretation of the rules.
• Consistency in the maintenance of a balance between game control and game flow, having a 'feeling' for what the participants are trying to do and calling what is right for the game.
This is certainly a “grey” statement but it still makes no connection between letting the game flow and disregarding the most basic of rules of the game.
To suggest that a player gains no unfair advantage by travelling is akin to not really understanding the benefit of each possession of the ball in the game. Travelling is a turnover, simple as that, if the referee’s see them then they should make the call. The players will adjust quickly enough if it is called consistently as they would if all the rules of the game were called consistently without the vast range of interpretations each individual referee has.
I remember when I was assistant coach to Al Westover with the Melbourne Tigers and we were playing the South Dragons in the Grand Final series. It was obviously a tough series and just before have time in the final game of a five game series Donta Smith made a spin move to the basket that concluded with four (4) steps after he picked the ball up, it was the most obvious of travels which resulted in a momentum building two points for the Dragons. Self-proclaimed best referee in the world, Michael Aylen, counted the two, obviously concluding he gained no advantage by breaking the rules as the travel was so obvious Stevie Wonder would have called it. Did it win the series for the Dragons? No of course not, but it does cause significant stress and misunderstanding to those competing and viewing.
Another area where it has been difficult to get consistency is when teams look to foul at the end of a game or when a player deliberately fouls to stop a fast break. I believe most coaches understand that a team is going to foul them at the end of the game if you have a small lead and time is running out. Some referees don’t understand this though. I have seen some referees decide they are no longer going to call fouls unless it is really obvious and deliberate at the end of the game. It’s a bit like the scene in the movie Flying High when the guy wants to turn the runway lights on and the character played by Lloyd Bridges (who is totally drugged out at the time) say’s “No, that just what they’d expect us to do” Anywhere else in the world, they just call the foul, here we get individual referees trying to be a hero of the game by deciding when it will be a foul. They should call it the same in the first 5 minutes at they do in the final five minutes.
It's a very tough job to referee at the highest level of the game, being consistent while still be able to communicate calmly and still providing a fair interpretation of the game is not easy. To simplify the task, just sticking to the rules and not over apply the advantage/disadvantage interpretation will make it easier for everyone to understand and accept. Keep it black and white.