Before we begin, I will confess to complaining about officials far more than is seemly. I am absolutely certain there are field hockey officials in the North Coast Athletic Conference from when my daughter played that can still hear my voice in their sleep. There’s a bit of an extenuating circumstance there. I watched my daughters play field hockey for 11 years; I’m familiar with the rules. So many of them are subject to interpretation to the point where I had no more idea what was going on in the 11th year than I did in the first.
Still, it seems that pretty much every whistle blown — or not blown, for that matter — in any sport has become an impetus for a display of emotion that should frankly be reserved for blatant injustices such as speeding tickets. Conducting oneself in this fashion is simply tiresome; we’ll refer to it as “Draymonding.” It adds a couple of minutes to the length of every sporting event, and it has a success rate of 0.0000000001%. In other words, you’d be better off offering the ref a bribe.
LeBron James has been called for 2,583 personal fouls in his career, and 2,583 times he has stood there with his arms outstretched plaintively as though the last dollar he had to his name had just been snatched away. To be fair, LeBron has a legitimate beef about some calls. If the refs called a foul every time he gets hacked going to the hoop, the game would grind to a halt. But he would have more credibility if he restricted his complaining to the egregious mistakes, rather than just whining every time things don’t go his way. Bear in mind the that LeBron has played in more than 1,300 games, counting playoffs, so his foul total comes to an average of fewer than two per game. It’s not as though he is being picked on.
Draymond Green is the worst. At least five times in every game he conducts himself in a fashion for which there is a precedent to call a technical foul. Not saying he deserves five technical every game, but there are people who have been T’d up for less. If you watch the replays, he has a legitimate grievance maybe 10 percent of the time. Another 20 percent fall into that gray area that the league has created by not setting and enforcing clear standards on how things should be called. The rest are good calls that Green has no right to complain about.
It’s the same with everyone else. The degree of demonstrativeness throughout sports in response to calls has increased exponentially in the past decade or so. Every (I mean every) wide receiver in the NFL looks at the nearest ref with his arms outstretched after every incomplete pass if there is a defensive player close enough to smell his farts. The trend seems to have seeped down into the college level this season, with many players expressing anguish over being called for fouls that replay showed them to be blatantly guilty of.
Refs are not perfect. There are rules such as pass interference and charging that are basically a coin flip as to whether or how they are called. Somebody is bound to be pissed on every call or non-call. The degree of athleticism, just by virtue of much larger men being able to do things that only men 50 pounds lighter or six inches shorter could do 30 years ago, means that there is more contact. It’s not as if the fields and courts changed size over the decades.
But there is something else at play here. There was a point not so long ago where players who complained endlessly, such as Rasheed Wallace, stood out for their conduct. Wallace, in fact, was the inspiration for the rule that mandated a suspension for accumulating too many technical fouls. Compared to today, though, Wallace was nothing special. He was more disposed to carry on a running commentary throughout the game than to get overly emotional about a particular call. His commentaries, in fact, were where the epic phrase “ball don’t lie” was born. He would occasionally slam the ball or wave his arms in the air and every so often he dropped an f-bomb. And when he did, the referees were ready to give out that technical. But for the most part, Wallace was not as consistently melodramatic as Green, or even James.
What is causing this change? The game is definitely more difficult to officiate than it was even 20 years ago when Wallace was in his prime. Not only is there more athleticism, it is more complicated because of changes such as flagrant fouls. I can’t really say that more calls are missed than 20 years ago, but I can say with confidence that any increase in missed calls is nowhere near enough to account for the increase in arguing.
Could it be that replay is driving this? While most of the calls that get argued are not reviewable, you watch every game these days with the sense that no call is final until somebody at league headquarters says it is. Even though it doesn’t make sense to hope that a charging call will be reviewed, it’s possible that the way so many calls are litigated after the whistle has infected the mindset of players to such an extent that they instinctively believe that every call is worth arguing about.
Here’s another theory. It’s a stretch, but basketball players are essentially only beginning to do what soccer players have done since the dawn of time. Following that thread of logic, the most significant cultural change in the NBA in the past twenty years has been the influx of European players, who have much more exposure to soccer than do American-born players. Sure enough, the active leader in career techs is … Dirk Nowitzki! Not who you figured, was it? Is it possible that, in addition to prioritizing jump shooting, another point of influence of European players has been their soccer-like propensity for arguing calls?
Seems unlikely. I’ll go with the replay theory. If nothing else, replay has sown a degree of uncertainty, to the extent that on close calls the refs will often go straight to the monitor without even making a call. In other circumstances such as catches in the NFL, there is an overriding feeling that nobody is quite sure how the rule works. It would make sense that players sense the erosion of authority that refs have allowed to occur and decide that calls are no longer immune to doubt. Arguing is both no longer as objectionable as it once was, and might indeed work.