Let us start with this bit of charity: refereeing is absurdly difficult business. The best possible outcome is nobody noticing your performance, and the much more common outcome is furious attention and profane acknowledgement. Those who defend referees insist that mistakes are an inevitable reality of anything judged by other humans; those who decry officials...usually make their case more urgently.
One staunch against criticism are the rules themselves. Rules are meant to be clear delineations of what is and is not allowed. Even when sports fail to accomplish this—the ongoing mudslide that is the NFL’s attempt to define a catch, for example—there is at least some effort being put into clearly explain what is and is not allowed. This gives referees the ability to say, “I made my best effort to make the call within the parameters outlined by book…” and fans to say, “We disagreed with your call, but we can see why it was made.”
There are times, though, when the rules are no help at all—when, rather than adjudicating between between physical actions, referees are asked to assess player intent. This is an entirely different thing. And it stinks.
The Class B Technical Foul: Hanging On The Rim
Late in the first half of last week’s NCAA Tournament round of 64 game between the 5th-seeded Baylor Bears and the 12th-seeded Yale Bulldogs, Baylor’s Taurean Prince streaked down the court, dunked the ball, and was then whistled for a technical foul. He had held on to the rim for too long. Here is video:
Taurean Prince is T'd up for going Spider-Man on the rim. https://t.co/r8dvzpXFfH
— Andy Wittry (@AndyWittry) March 17, 2016
Players are expected to dunk the ball and then immediately stop dunking the ball. Referees are allowed to whistle what are known as Class B Technical Fouls whenever players do not stop quickly enough:
A CLASS B technical foul is an infraction of the rules that neither involves contact with an opponent nor causes contact with an opponent and falls below the limit of an unsportsmanlike act. Examples of CLASS A and CLASS B technical fouls shall include: 1. Unsportsmanlike conduct; using profanity, vulgarity, taunting, baiting (CLASS A); 2. Hanging on the ring, except when doing so to prevent an injury (CLASS B). c. Double technical
This particular technical foul gives opponents one shot and possession of the ball.
The idea is that players hanging on to the rim are showing up their opponents and a true sportsman seeks only points, not his opponent’s humiliation, and so on. The NCAA does afford its referees wiggle room: rim-hanging can be ignored if the player is protecting himself, or players underneath him. Even then, though, referees are tasked with knowing an unknowable thing and enforcing the rule accordingly.
Back to Prince: by my stopwatch, he spent two seconds dunking—long enough to jump, dunk, lift his feet near one another, and then return to the hardwood just in time to hear the referee’s whistle. The idea that players have to get down is so ingrained in the game that Chris Webber comments that Prince should have known better than to lift his feet. That was the unsportsmanlike part, or anyway the part likely to draw the whistle.
Watch the replay again: there are three Yalies pursuing Prince, one who cuts in front on his way up, one who passes underneath after the dunk, and one who appears at the end. These four players come into each other’s proximity over the course of roughly two-and-a-half seconds of game play. It seems reasonable to assume that Prince knew enough to know that there were players around him and lifted his feet up in an attempt to protect either himself (from getting undercut) or them (from getting kicked in the face) or both. Letting go of the rim earlier might have been the more dangerous play.
The rule asks the referee to know the difference. The rule’s working assumption appears to be that players must always precisely and accurately know the location of everybody around them. The referee’s whistle determines that even though he is allowed to be concerned for his safety, Prince could not possibly have been doing that.
This expectation of awareness gets crazier when taking a player’s momentum into account. In the video, Prince, all 6’8 and 220 pounds of him, is moving at what is presumably close to full speed. From a running start, Prince jumps, his momentum carrying his body beyond the rim, before it swings back and he lets go, landing safely. Even if there were not Yale players running around underneath him, his momentum from a running jump is still very likely to force his body to travel in the way that we see it move. As the basketball writer Isaac Newton once put it,
Prince’s body continued to move until acted upon by his hands, which were holding the rim; this stopped him, and brought him back to a position where he believed that he could let go. When in that sequence was Taurean Prince supposed to let go of the rim? Any answer has to account for those pursuing Bulldogs and Prince’s own momentum, and also acknowledge the cheerleaders and photographers on the end line. Again, the whistle indicates that the referee believed two things—that he could have let go sooner and that Prince was not worried about his own safety.
This foul does not get better in other examples. Here’s one that was blown on Anthony Davis, during his year at Kentucky.
And here’s one whistled on Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim:
In each case, players spend roughly two seconds on the rim before returning to the hardwood. In each case, defenders are nearby. In each case, they are whistled for the technical foul.
The rule explicitly allows for the charitable interpretation of each player’s behavior. In each case, the referee instead chose to see an “unsportsmanlike act.” Is it so difficult to imagine that these players were protecting themselves?
There is charity in assuming that referees make mistakes. There is none in assuming that referees play favorites. The rules attempt to protect against this by making it clear what is and is not allowed. The difference between a block and a charge is positioning, not a perceived moral failing. Rim-hanging asks referees to make a very different determination.
And that, unhelpfully and inevitably, makes it easy to assume that referees are whistling dishonorable behavior for less than honorable reasons. It does seem at least possible to imagine that a referee deciding that a player is not protecting himself—a referee who cannot even imagine that this might be a motivating factor in a player having taken upwards of two entire seconds to return to earth—might be seeing things that are not there. We can imagine an aggressive player being penalized and a passive player getting a pass. We can imagine a more athletic player being penalized and a less athletic player getting a pass. We can imagine an outspoken player being penalized and a quieter player getting a pass. And, if we watch enough basketball, we can start to imagine even worse. There is plenty of room in the rule, as enforced, to imagine all kinds of things.
It seems impossible to imagine that a referee can fairly be expected to understand what is going through a player’s mind while they are all the way up there. “All the way up there” is substantive language in this case, as a player dunking the ball has at least some of himself ten feet off the ground.
Perhaps the the most charitable interpretation is that referees simply do not know this danger and there is no easy way to teach it. The game probably cannot find enough referees themselves capable of dunking and other attempts to recreate the experience are hard to conceive—referees-in-training jumping from a slow-moving car, perhaps?
The easiest response, of course, would just be eliminating the rule. Instead of asking referees to make decisions about when a player can and should feel safe about letting go of the rim, the working assumption could simply be that players are not intentionally trying to embarrass their opponents, and are instead motivated at least somewhat by a desire to maximize their own safety, even as they put it at risk through their awe-inspiring physicality. There will be the occasional violator, but that seems a decent tradeoff for increased player safety and one less thing that forces referees to subdivide players into honorable and dishonorable camps. If there is one thing that college basketball could use more of, it is just this sort of charity.