It's a well-known trope that a die-hard fan (like me) is one-eyed and cannot imagine a world where a ref would rule against our beloved teams; Specsavers even made a TV commercial about it. But this is really at the point of ridiculousness.
On November 27, nbl.com.au published CEO David Stevenson's position on refereeing in the league.
He stated that he wanted to ensure fair and proper treatment of the NBL's on-court officials, and that he believes the mistreatment of referees is a recurring theme in the competition. Speaking to News Corp, he is quoted as saying "... I will have zero tolerance for the abuse of referees, full-stop."
"[O]ur referees are sacrosanct and I won't tolerate any abuse."
Cracking down on "abuse" is not something a reasonable person would argue with. We need to remember that the basketball court is a workplace for players, coaches, club staff, officials and, of course, referees, and no one should experience abuse in the workplace.
Despite having no clear-cut legal definition, the term "abuse" is a very particular word, with very emotive connotations. Generally, it speaks to personal attacks, violence, intimidation, name calling, aggressive or threatening language and physical assault.
Of course, any of this behaviour must be considered unacceptable in any workplace, but I question the generalised use of the term "abuse" and the impact of this generalisation on the way we perceive referee interactions.
In light of such a stance, it is vital the CEO's "zero tolerance of abuse" comes with a clear definition of what "abuse" actually means in the context of the sport.
Can you raise your voice? Can you question a call? Can you share frustrations with inconsistent, unfair and improper decisions on the court - or is that protection purely for the referees?
If NBL referees are to be regarded as "sacrosanct", this places them in a position where they are considered "too important or valuable to be interfered with." I can't help but wonder if they will now be expected to get their calls on the floor ... right?
The complaints about poor on-court decisions has been a problem for a number of years, but as the complaints increase, it seems, so do the instances of questionable calls.
Listening to the commentary team query calls and even state unequivocally that the refs got it wrong indicate that I'm not just a one-eyed fan blind to fair-play.
Spectators have been dissatisfied with call inconsistencies and players have been left uncertain as to where the boundaries are for play, resulting in escalating frustrations when it seems like the referees are favouring one team over another.
And that is not without precedent. In 2020, for example, Fox Sports actually reported on NBL officials' performance in the play-off series, stating that: "The general consensus was that the Kings got a favourable whistle for most of the evening, and it affected United in more ways than one."
Report after report has been published sharing players and coaches being slapped with fines for minor complaints about the refs "not [being] great", whereas the accountability for the referees who are actually making the questionable calls is nowhere to be seen.
The control of the game - the whole game - lies within the purview of the referees. They need to have skills in de-escalation and communication.
The NBL are band-aiding the outcome of the deeper issue: the league's refereeing has been a problem for several years, and declaring referees as inviolable doesn't solve this. If anything, it entrenches their bad performance and demands those suffering the fallout, just "suck it up."
All over the world, from amateur kids' leagues to the pro leagues, football (or soccer to the heathens) has literally seen referees die because of poor decisions/bias. This, coupled with increasing concerns regarding referee performance, has led to FIFA's relatively recent introduction of the video assistant referee. They looked to the root cause, rather than the surface symptoms and sought to address the reason for fan, coach, player (and referee) frustration.
While not perfect, it's at least acknowledging the actual problem: inconsistent/controversial decisions and perceived bias.
Furthermore, why not mic up the refs so their conversations and decisions are transparent, include referees in post-match interviews, stand referees down when their performance is poor, or even encourage ex-players/coaches to become replay centre referees? Ultimately, if you want the refs to be respected, it's got to be earned.
- Zoë Wundenberg is a careers consultant and un/employment advocate at impressability.com.au, and a regular columnist for ACM.