Saturday, July 21, 2007

What the NBA should do about their referees

"That was a three you hit right? Yes, I saw your toe on the line, let's just agree it was a three and move on."

For a few years now, several people I know have playfully purported that the NBA fixes games. Sometimes their justification is that the NBA wants to promote a certain star or team, thus manipulating games to the outcome they want. Never fully serious, they cite a few examples such as Dwyane Wade's phantom calls in the 2006 Finals, Michael Jordan's countless foul calls during his tenure in the league and Derek Fisher's 0.4-second buzzer beater in 2004. I always shrugged it off of course. The NBA has no reason to rig contests. They may be slipping in popularity as compared to the other two major sports, but they are doing OK for themselves. Fixing games isn't a business they need to get into.

I wrote a post about the stupidity of resistance to putting an NBA team in Las Vegas, and I still believe this to be true. Players are paid well enough to avoid these types of things.

The one facet I never thought of was the potential corruption of NBA referees. 15-year NBA referee Tim Donaghy is currently being investigated by the FBI for point shaving, mob connections and other no-good activities.

The NBA is obviously in a huge pickle. In a sport, integrity is at the top of things a sports league must have to survive as a valid competition. It's the reason Major League Baseball is trying to distance itself from Barry Bonds. It's the reason there was a fuss about Wayne Gretzky's wife's involvement in a gambling ring. It's the reason Roger Goodell is punishing criminal NFL players for acting the fool. It's the reason the Tour de France is trying its best to crack down on dopers. You just can't have any question in the general public's mind that the players aren't being true to the game.

So, in a time that's about as inconvenient as it can be, the NBA finds itself having to answer questions about corruption. Following a very tumultuous playoffs, where many fans feel that the Western Conference Semifinals between the Spurs and Suns was tainted, the outcome of many games is being questioned as potentially tainted as well.

So, how do you fix this? One suggestion is to raise referee salaries. Making between $100,000 and $300,000 a year, NBA referee salaries are a drop in the bucket compared to the players they officiate. It's a dastardly situation for all involved. Unless you start paying them close to what the average player makes ($5.2 million/year on average), that isn't going to work. With games having the potential of millions of dollars riding on the outcome, the incentive to side with the seedier side of life is still strong.

They could hire more surveillance on officials, but they already do quite a bit to monitor their bank accounts and police within. So, I have a simpler solution.

Do nothing.

OK, maybe not absolutely nothing, but don't change any fundamental ways that they deal with officials. Push a hard public-relations campaign to try and convince the public that your league isn't corrupt. Up referee salaries by 10 percent to dupe the public into thinking that will make a difference. They are kinda dumb, after all.

But honestly, there isn't really anything you can do other than screening the people you hire and following their financial moves as much as possible. There will be a public outcry about this situation, but it's an isolated incident, and that's what the NBA has to focus on for damage control. Many columnists will call for the overhaul of the system that the NBA uses in monitoring and hiring its referees, but this isn't the solution. If the NBA focuses on more than promoting this as an isolated incident, they are giving in more than they should and will ultimately wish they hadn't. They should also tack on some PR about improving officiating on the court, which is really what NBA fans want anyway.

In the end, this will probably be a stink that doesn't die for some time, let's just hope it's the only stink.

Reasonably yours,

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

That's only enough time for one Chad Johnson end-zone dance

Earlier this week, the NFL began a campaign to actively shift the media’s focus on the league from athletic and coaching related activities towards more accessible media topics like dog fighting. If a reporter were video taping at the court house in Richmond this week, they would be welcomed with unfettered access to investigator press conferences and interviews with Michael Vick’s attorney’s and Federal prosecutors. The content of these interviews could then be freely posted on the reporter’s online media source. However, if the same reporter were to travel to Atlanta and interview Bobby Petrino, the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, and a few of Vick’s teammates working out at the team’s training facility, the reporter’s website would only be allowed to air a total of 45 seconds worth of footage. Why the discrepancy? The National Football League has recently announced that it will begin limiting online sources to 45 seconds per day of audio and video footage recorded on NFL property. After 24 hours, this footage must be removed and the segments have to link back to and the pertinent team website.

For a lot of the print newspapers that have had to rely more and more on their electronic format for revenue, this seems like a pretty severe blow, but hardly a death knell. A talented group of writers can draw tons of readers through more creative online content. I would certainly hope that in the realm of everyday team coverage, a football fan would be able to find more sophisticated coverage among the professional sports writers of the newspapers than in the blog world or on the team websites. If not, then they probably shouldn’t be professional sports writers.

As for the NFL, it should come as no surprise to the readers of this blog that I believe the NFL is completely within their rights to limit video and audio broadcast of their product online. They have also not interfered with the online newspapers’ ability to broadcast interviews with players and coaches that are not recorded on NFL property. Any newspaper looking for video clips only needs to place a reporter and a camera in a strip club or gun shop right outside the team’s training facility and wait. Having had the opportunity myself to hang out with NFL stars in this environment leads me to believe that they can be much more engaging and interesting from a fan’s perspective. This example was mainly inserted for humor…mainly, but it shows that just maybe there would be a creative way for online newspapers to provide their readers with content that the NFL could not limit.

Those that are most upset about this new rule keep rambling on about how the NFL would not be what it is today without the coverage provided by the print media, but perhaps the NFL, in conjunction with most other major sports, could say the same thing. But that’s all history now. The NFL has a new television network, and every team has its own website. Times have changed, and there really isn’t anything that the NFL needs from the print media (this point can be argued, but that seems to be how the league feels) in order for its fans to be updated with current information. Fans in other arenas have begun to move their patronage elsewhere as well. Have you noticed that the stock listings section of your local newspaper has been drastically reduced or disappeared all together? Why would I unfold some big cumbersome piece of paper to find out what yesterday’s close price was whenever I could just go online and get the current price straight from the exchange? The NFL is simply following a trend in the distribution of information, where the middle-men are being taken out more and more. The online print sports guys should take a cue from their business page colleagues. Just because they don’t print the stock listings anymore, doesn’t mean they have to quit their job. I read the Wall Street Journal (online) religiously every day, and I pay a sizable sum for it. I don’t do it because that’s where I can find security prices, I do it because they write interesting articles and provide me with valuable insight that I use to make decisions both at home and at work. Put more simply, intelligent writing will attract readers more than video clips.

If the newspapers do decide to push what little leverage they have in this situation, they can simply forget to report whenever one of the NFL players does something for charity (having lived in St. Louis during the Warner years, the purchase of a home for a low-income family was an everyday occurrence), or they could report a whole lot whenever a player gets busted driving drunk in possession of a firearm.

All in all, I doubt this new rule has much effect on anything. The NFL can do whatever it wants. It really isn’t worth speculating whether or not this is a good business decision on the part of the league…Never mind, I speculate that this is probably a pretty good business decision for the league. They lose nothing while at the same time providing their sponsors with exclusivity. The newspapers have to realize, that anyone can make “online news,” I’m doing it right now, but as far as competition is concerned, I am setting the bar pretty low.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Ron Artest suddenly likes to help others

Ron needs to fix his image badly.

First off, let me say that humanitarianism is always honorable. Taking time out of one's busy schedule to donate energy and resources to the less fortunate is something to be proud of. But I want to focus on people's motivations.

When someone does something nice for humankind — whether it's volunteering at a homeless shelter, providing African relief or handing someone their wallet they just dropped on the sidewalk — there's always a motivation.

Some people do it out of the goodness of their heart. They feel that doing something good for their fellow man is just something they were made to do. They feel that everyone should think this way, and are often dismayed when they see others pass up opportunities to help.

Some people do it because it makes them feel good inside. Maybe deep down, they would have loved to have kept that wallet that fell on the ground in front of them, but the reward of the money outweighed the overall warm-fuzzy feeling they got from making someone else happy. Maybe they would have preferred to have their Saturday morning to themselves, but they went to volunteer at the children's hospital instead because the happiness they brought to the kids made them feel good about themselves.

Then, there is a third kind. We'll call these kinds of people "Me Humanitarians."

Me Humanitarians are usually in the public eye. Politicians, celebrities and athletes comprise this group for the majority. Their motivation is to be seen doing good things. They have the means to help, and they do. But they do it from a completely different motivation than the first two on the list. Most of the time, these people do good services to maintain an image. They are seen as good guys, and they want to keep it this way. It might earn them votes (politicians), endorsement opportunities (athletes) or higher-level celebrity status. Then there are those who perform good acts in an attempt to repair their image.
Enter Mr. Ron Artest.

With a practical laundry list of idiotic and criminal actions from his past, Ron Artest has figured it's finally time to go straight. After the NBA announced that Artest and former knucklehead teammate Stephen Jackson would each be suspended for seven games because of their respective criminal transgressions, Artest was a day late in publicly responding because he is on a relief mission in Kenya.

Don't pin me as labeling what Artest is doing as some kind of despicable act. Obviously humanitarian work of any kind is a positive thing. But my caution to the fans of the world is to keep your opinions of Ron Artest intact. Instead of looking at the actions that people take, always look at the motivations behind them, lest we be fooled into thinking Artest is actually turning over a new leaf. He's done some community outreach activities in the past, so this new brand of good guy persona isn't entirely brand new.

Let's give him a year. If he's still walking the line, then I'll reconsider. For now? Don't expect me to go drafting him early in my fantasy draft this year. It's all just posturing.

Reasonably yours,

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Ties are not the enemy

Let's end it here.

Ties. They are the bane of American sports fans, often cited as one of the reasons Americans can’t get behind soccer. NCAA football and the NHL have, in recent years, eliminated ties from their competitions with contrived formats that hardly represent the sport in its true form. Four on four hockey and 25-yard football both determine winners, but you cannot say that those wins came from playing actual football or hockey. Those wins come from mini-games tacked on to the end of the match just so we can say that somebody "won". They might as well play a game of Gradius, a la the NES classic hockey game Blades of Steel to determine the winner.

Granted these are creative and entertaining ways to determine a winner, but they are not really fair to all the teams that are victorious at the end of regulation time and they bastardize the sport in some ways by changing the rules to provide a winner in a timely fashion. Why does an NBA team that needed 53, 58, or 63 minutes to defeat its opponent get equal credit as the team that needed just the standard 48? If you needed extra time, a few extra possessions, or a four on four situation to defeat your opponent, there is no reason why it should be credited as a win because, in all fairness, the win came as a result of a special situation in which the teams otherwise would not find themselves. When the game starts, the players, coaches, and fans know that their team has 48 minutes (or however long your favorite sport’s regulation time lasts) to win, and if they cannot, get it done in the time allotted. A second chance at victory should not be awarded.

Overtimes favor the more talented team, also. The Celtics should be rewarded in some way for staying even with the Cavaliers through 48 minutes instead of being subjected to five extra minutes of LeBron James and, most likely, a loss. On some days, teams are equal and nobody deserves the win, ties reflect that better than anything else. When a winner of a match is not guaranteed, the value of winning is increased and play will elevate to reflect that.

Now, I will say that overtimes provide an aura of excitement after regulation is over. Games like the epic New Jersey Nets vs. Phoenix Suns game this year illustrate that perfectly. That game set the record for points scored in an NBA game while providing loads of memorable moments and stat padding statistics for all players involved. However, in a sport like basketball, that excitement would just be crunched into the last few minutes of the game. In the end, teams would have to decide on taking a two for the tie or a three for the win without the benefit of a looming overtime period to bail them out if they decide to do the safe thing and go for two.

This leaves us with a playoff conundrum though. In the FIFA World Cup of old, if a game in the Knockout Round (playoff round) ended after 90 minutes in a tie, the teams would just have to play another game two days later. This rule was quickly abandoned in favor of the two-fifteen minute overtime periods followed by a (silly) shootout that we see today. Albeit this is a time-consuming way to determine winners, it is a very motivating way to end games during regulation as I’m sure not many NFL players would want to play a second game in the first round to advance in the playoffs. For basketball, hockey, and baseball, this is very doable. Imagine your favorite basketball team tying two games in a row, staving off elimination to advance to the next round. Or, if two games in a best of seven series result in ties, the series would just become a best of five, and so on.

In short, overtimes usually turn a sport into somewhat of a different game played with similar rules to force a result that was not necessarily earned outright by the victorious team. Over the course of an 82-game season there are plenty of opportunities to win, the great teams would find a way to do it in 48 minutes, like they are supposed to.

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Kenneth is a guest contributor to laissez-faire ball.