June 4, 2002
Commissioner David J. Stern
National Basketball Association
New York, NY
Dear Mr. Stern,
At a time when the public’s confidence is shaken by headlines reporting the breach of trust by corporate executives, it is important, during the public’s relaxation time, for there to be maintained a sense of impartiality and professionalism in commercial sports performances. That sense was severely shaken in the now notorious officiating during Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings.
Calls by referees in the NBA are likely to be more subjective than in professional baseball or football. But as the judicious and balanced Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon wrote this Sunday, too many of the calls in the fourth quarter (when the Lakers received 27 foul shots) were “stunningly incorrect,” all against Sacramento. After noting that the three referees in Game 6 “are three of the best in the game,” he wrote: “I have never seen officiating in a game of consequence as bad as that in Game 6….When Pollard, on his sixth and final foul, didn’t as much as touch Shaq. Didn’t touch any part of him. You could see it on TV, see it at courtside. It wasn’t a foul in any league in the world. And Divac, on his fifth foul, didn’t foul Shaq. They weren’t subjective or borderline or debatable. And these fouls not only resulted in free throws, they helped disqualify Sacramento’s two low-post defenders.” And one might add, in a 106-102 Lakers’ victory, this officiating took away what would have been a Sacramento series victory in 6 games.
This was not all. The Kobe Bryant elbow in the nose of Mike Bibby, who after lying on the floor groggy, went to the sideline bleeding, was in full view of the referee, who did nothing, prompted many fans to start wondering about what was motivating these officials.
Wilbon discounted any conspiracy theories about the NBA-NBC desire for a Game 7 etc., but unless the NBA orders a review of this game’s officiating, perceptions and suspicions, however presently absent any evidence, will abound and lead to more distrust and distaste for the games in general. When the distinguished basketball writer for the USA Today, David DuPree, can say: “I’ve been covering the NBA for 30 years, and it’s the poorest officiating in an important game I’ve ever seen,” when Wilbon writes that “The Kings and Lakers didn’t decide this series would be extended until Sunday; three referees did…” when many thousands of fans, not just those in Sacramento, felt that merit lost to bad refereeing, you need to take notice beyond the usual and widespread grumbling by fans and columnists about referees ignoring the rule book and giving advantages to home teams and superstars.
Your problem in addressing the pivotal Game 6 situation is that you have too much power. Where else can decision-makers (the referees) escape all responsibility to admit serious and egregious error and have their bosses (you) fine those wronged (the players and coaches) who dare to speak out critically?
In a February interview with David DuPree of USA Today, he asked you “Why aren’t coaches and players allowed to criticize the referees?” You said, “…we don’t want people questioning the integrity of officials. …It just doesn’t pay for us to do anything other than focus people on the game itself rather than the officiating.” “Integrity” which we take you to mean “professionalism” of the referees has to be earned and when it is not, it has to be questioned. You and your league have a large and growing credibility problem. Referees are human and make mistakes, but there comes a point that goes beyond any random display of poor performance. That point was reached in Game 6 which took away the Sacramento Kings Western Conference victory.
It seems that you have a choice. You can continue to exercise your absolute power to do nothing. Or you can initiate a review and if all these observers and fans turn out to be right, issue, together with the referees, an apology to the Sacramento Kings and forthrightly admit decisive incompetence during Game 6, especially in the crucial fourth quarter.
You should know, however, that absolute power, if you choose the former course of inaction, invites the time when it is challenged and changed ý whether by more withdrawal of fans or by more formal legal or legislative action. No government in our country can lawfully stifle free speech and fine those who exercise it; the NBA under present circumstances can both stifle and fine players and coaches who speak up. There is no guarantee that this tyrannical status quo will remain stable over time, should you refuse to bend to reason and the reality of what occurred. A review that satisfies the fans’ sense of fairness and deters future recurrences would be a salutary contribution to the public trust that the NBA badly needs.
We look forward to your considered response.
League of Fans
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