Monday, June 16, 2008

Why the NBA Is Like Figure Skating

Many readers, I suspect, assume that in this post I will compare the scandal surrounding the referees' fixing of the NBA playoffs in 2002 with the fixing of the pairs' ice skating competition at the Salt Lake City Olympics of the same year.

That would be too easy.

The connection I see between these two sports stems instead from an inherent problem with the high amount of involvement by referees or judges. In other words, officials exercise too much subjective control over the outcomes of both figure skating and basketball.

At the heart of the matter is the amount of subjectivity built into the rules themselves.

Consider this rule governing blocking/charging fouls: "The mere fact that contact occurs on these type of plays, or any other similar play, does not necessarily mean that a personal foul has been committed. The officials must decide whether the contact is negligible and/or incidental, judging each situation separately" (from In other words, the ref wields an inordinate amount of subjective power over foul calling and, by extension, wins and losses.

In figure skating, the simple existence of points for "Choreography" and "Interpretation" (formerly "Presentation") and the fact that both music selection and costume weigh in the outcome, suggests a similar high degree of subjectivity.

We can imagine a spectrum where on one end stand sports such as figure skating (where external officials have large amounts of subjective control over the outcome of the contest), and on the other sports like golf or track and field (where officials rarely intervene and play almost no role in the outcome).

Basketball, unfortunately, leans toward figure skating on this scale, meaning outcomes of games are more susceptible to being decided not by athletes but by referees (particularly those with an ax to grind or a bookie to pay off). I would put other sports like rugby and even baseball near basketball on the spectrum. (More on baseball in an upcoming post.)

Soccer has attempted to mitigate the influence of referees by asking a single official to evaluate actions on a very large field. The NFL and tennis have introduced video replay in an attempt to limit the role played by refs.

Theorizing: Perhaps the amount of control officials possess tells us something about cultural power structures at the time a given game became popular. Sports where officials exercise more control would have flourished in societies where respect for authority was needed or valued. Sports with less involvement by an umpire or referee would have sprung from cultural structures where individual initiative was more prized.

There is always some external force, particularly in team sports, that comes into play and that influences who wins and who loses. I would simply prefer to watch a sport where that external force is chance rather than gods in striped shirts.


Derek said...

It is telling of our society that people (referees) are able to abuse their position for personal gain. Don't we call that fraud in corporate America? I'm not sure what crime it is considered by the Catholic Church when the Priest abuses his power given him by his position. The point is, we are moving (as a society) back to the Law of Moses way in order to protect ourselves.

scott said...

Corry--Can you back the socio-historical "theory" with evidence? It may simply be a question of the "form" of the sport: some require "judgment" (something the modern world attempts desperately to get rid of) and "objectivity"--or, on second thought, pseudo-objectivity since all sports require some kind of judgment, including golf, tennis, cycling, horseracing, etc.