Admitting refs' wrongs might be right thing to do

Having NBA officials admit mistakes like the NFL's refs might prevent Pat Riley-type rants.

Originally Published: December 16, 2002
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Editor's note: As part of "The Stein Line" every Monday, ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein gives his take on things in "Slams and Dunks."

The league is still evaluating the weekend rant from Pat Riley, whether to fine or even suspend Riles for his loud suggestions that multiple referees -- but most notably Steve Javie -- penalize the Miami Heat because they don't like the Heat's slicked-back coach. Yet just imagine if Riley can ever prove his assertions. The NBA would have an eyesore considerably uglier than Saturday night's shameful fan uprising against the ref crew in Salt Lake City.

Pat Riley
Pat Riley, left, believes the referees are out to get him and his lowly Heat.
Riley's insistence that Javie, a year ago, told him that "it's giving us absolute delight to watch you and your team die," would merit way more than a fine. Provided, again, the comments are verified. This isn't the usual complaint about Javie and his famed quick trigger. Such statements could be classified only as a serious breach of impartiality, the No. 1 requirement of referees.

The NFL, meanwhile, endured its own Refgate episode last week, when confidential league documents acknowledging nine officiating mistakes in the Packers-Vikings game were obtained by two Minneapolis-St. Paul newspapers. That story brought renewed attention to the NFL's practice of admitting mistakes made by its referees when teams fill out day-after forms seeking clarifications on calls.

The instant reaction, of course, is to wonder whether such a system could help diffuse the growing dissatisfaction with officiating in the NBA, where rants against ref error are a nightly staple and sadly rising in volume. There would be obvious obstacles, with five times as many games in the NBA. It's also hard to imagine mea culpas that come a day or two later making the team that thinks it got jobbed feel any better.

Then again ...

Eventually admitting mistakes in formal communications with teams -- with fines for teams found leaking the info -- would be worlds better than the NBA never admitting mistakes, even privately. Which is how it works now. It's a system that hasn't improved the public perception of referees at all or mollified players and coaches any, in spite of the fact that it's the hardest sport to officiate and every ref undertakes a considerable internal-review process after every game.

Instead, players and coaches keep stewing until they detonate, leading to accusations like Riley's that invariably chip away at the league's image yet again, paranoid as they sound. There's no guarantee that the NFL's way would help, but could it hurt?

  • There's a new drama (no joke) coming to NBC called Mister Sterling. It's about an unconventional U.S. senator (bad-joke warning) who drafts a lot of bills with lots of potential but never actually signs any of them.

    Larry Hughes
    Larry Hughes has been playing like a power point guard of late.
  • Mister Sterling is a young senator, apparently, so you know that show won't last. In Washington? Larry Hughes is the only kid working out there, ripping off a Yao Ming-like string of five straight double-doubles since he got to start playing with all the vets from the old-fellas network. Hughes, however, turns 24 next month and this is his fifth season, so he isn't exactly fresh-faced.

    The real kids (Kwame Brown and Jared Jeffries) are suddenly mostly spectators, giving Doug Collins the difficult task of making sure he doesn't lose them while everyone else is in Win Now mode. Yet Michael Jordan can make this all up to Kwame by attracting some premium talent this summer in his return to full-time GM-ing. That would be MJ's most significant achievement on Capitol Hill.

  • The choice facing the NBA's expansion committee essentially works out to an either/or between Larry Bird and Robert Johnson. Bird has been promised control of basketball operations if Boston businessman Steve Belkin is selected Monday to own the new team forthcoming in Charlotte. Johnson is the billionaire founder of Black Entertainment Television who hasn't lined up a famous team president but who would finally give the league an African-American owner, and one with serious financial clout.

    Charlotte residents know Bird better than they know Johnson, which is why public sentiment is said to be with the Belkin group. But Johnson could undoubtedly rectify that. Johnson could, say, offer the GM job to Magic Johnson, who, like Bird, also wants to a run an NBA team. Then again, Robert Johnson is so well-regarded in the league office, he might not need a starry sidekick to beat Belkin out.

  • It's quite obvious now that Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, from here to the finish line, are going to have to have their best regular seasons ever to get the Lakers to the 50-win minimum Phil Jackson has requested. There isn't a trade or signing realistically out there to make a drastic difference. There clearly isn't much bench left, either. Shaq and Kobe are going to have do this, together, a lot earlier than they're used to dead-lifting the franchise. The assumption here is that they still can, although it's an assumption heard less and less with each loss thrown onto the pile.

    Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

    Marc Stein | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com
    • Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
    • Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
    • Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics
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