The NBA, in an ambitious midseason attempt to improve the growing rift between officials and the players and coaches who they legislate, launched a five-pronged initiative to fix the problem on Friday.
The plan, which was announced by President of League operations Byron Spruell and is headed by Michelle Johnson (NBA Senior Vice President, Head of Referee Operations who was hired in October) and Monty McCutchen (a top-rated referee who became the vice president of referee training and development in December), will include the following, according to the league's release:
1. Johnson, McCutchen and their staffs will conduct meetings with all 30 teams to discuss rules interpretations, on-court conduct and the expectations of NBA referees. These meetings will begin before the NBA All-Star break (Feb. 17-19 in Los Angeles).
2. The league will re-emphasize its “Respect for the Game” rules with referees, coaches and players to ensure consistent enforcement of those violations.
3. The NBA Referee Operations department will expand its overall rules education initiative for coaches, players and team personnel to ensure clarity of the game’s rules and their proper interpretations.
4. Johnson and McCutchen will conduct enhanced training for the referees on conflict resolution. In addition, they will more closely monitor the on-court interactions of coaches, players and referees to ensure referee decorum meets league standards.
5. Through the NBA’s Officiating Advisory Council, the league will create opportunities for engagement with all key stakeholders to find common ground between all parties.
Translation: Education, empathy, and re-enforcement of the rules are the key to resolution here.
The shift toward relationship-based analysis is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the league’s strategy, as officials in recent years have been hyper-focused on the statistical accuracy of their calls as a public defense of consistent criticism. Now, however, there will be more focus on the human component of these dynamics.
“There are other attributes (other than getting the call right) that lead to a complete referee,” McCutchen told USA TODAY Sports in a conference call that also included Johnson and Spruell. “There’s honesty. There’s humility. There’s courage. There’s firmness. There’s resoluteness. There’s humor. There’s the ability to recognize your own shortcomings.
“Through development advisors, we’re starting to quantify those moments that we see (where) these things are done well and in some cases when they can be done better.”
Amid complaints about a lack of consistency in calls, and new points of emphasis this season, players will be given tapes aimed at clarifying any misunderstandings.
“(The tapes are) so that everyone is speaking the same language, so everyone is going to the middle, and everyone has that opportunity (to be clear),” McCutchen said. “We don’t want to be moving forward with anything until everyone has the proper tools to be successful.”
There will be robust and transparent discussion about the ways in which officials are held accountable as well, as many players cry foul at the fact that their league-issued discipline is publicized while the referees’ is typically not.
“I sign those (discipline) letters,” Johnson said. “There’s respect for (the officials’) privacy, and the magnitudes of the fines are a different level because the refs aren’t paid as much as players, but (they will) go through the level of scrutiny that the referees experience and how they’re held accountable. We want to get a common ground on that for a common understanding – in a respectful way, not in a pejorative way – but because we want them to keep getting better.”
The league also plans on reassessing the “penalties associated with falling short of those expectations" after this season, meaning fines for technical fouls could increase. At present, technical foul fines start at $2,000 and peak at $5,000 once a player reaches 16 (at which point he’s suspended for one game).
The list of proposed remedies goes on from there. And all of this, of course, is in addition to a meeting between players and officials that was already scheduled for All-Star weekend.
“Given some of the tension and frustration in the air, our league we took a step back and said, ‘Hey, we really are taking pride – great pride – in the things we stand for, in terms of competition, teamwork, respect, sportsmanship, and certainly even diversity and inclusion,” Spruell said. “And so we when we’d recently seen some of the instances that had been happening on the court by our major actors on the court (players, coaches and refs), we said, ‘This is not living up to our collective standards…in regards to sportsmanship. We thought it was just important to take a renewed emphasis on respect and relationships – respect for the game and respect for each other.”
Those “major actors,” as Spruell put it, include stars like Kevin Durant, Draymond Green (league-leading 11 technical fouls), LeBron James (first ejection of his career this season), Anthony Davis (first ejection), Stephen Curry (second ejection) and others like them who have been frustrated with the state of this relationship. Others, like Chris Paul and DeMar DeRozan, have also been highly critical of the officials.
Yet from the stars to the last player on the bench, all involved will have to adjust to this new landscape.
“(It has been) a little bit of a cumulative effect,” Spruell said. “We’d been noticing a little bit of chippiness kind of right out the box…We had our radar up and were monitoring it. And now we’ve gotten to this point where it’s getting more in the media and we do see the tension and some of the frustration on the floor.”
The return of the “Respect for the game” rules will likely draw the most attention in the player community, as the program was instituted in 2010 as a way of cracking down on the endless complaining and, as McCutchen explained it, will now be a point of emphasis again.
“(The “Respect for the Game” rules are) going to be very similar in terms of the visual presence as it was when it was instituted,” McCutchen said. “The respect for the game has never gone off the books, so to speak…so the things that you will see re-emphasized are air punches, continual complaining, running at an official, all the same subject matters that you can find on NBA.com right now (where they have video links detailing the rules).”
“There will still be a heat of the moment reaction that is allowable – no one is trying to take the passion or the enthusiasm away from the best basketball players in the world. We understand that’s a huge part of what makes our game successful. And no one is wanting to take that away. We are trying to find a common ground on how to disagree. This is not an attempt at stifling disagreement. What we are trying to find is that common language that allows for disagreement to be heard on both sides so that people aren’t shutting each other down. Then instead, the topic at hand can actually be discussed.”