New media procedure seeks to improve NBA referee accountability

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SALT LAKE CITY — The NBA wants you to know: its referees are being held accountable.

In an effort to increase transparency, the National Basketball Association has made a change this season to media availability for referees after games, making them more available to questions from the press than ever before.

In years past, NBA referees were only available to the media in extremely limited situations, when there was a question on rule interpretation on an unusual play that significantly affected the outcome of the game.

This year, though, NBA referees have been instructed to be open to being interviewed about any type of call that makes an impact on the game. That includes judgment calls, reviewed plays, ejections, and most other incidents on the court. Only in the instance of something requiring extensive review by the league office, like a fight, have the NBA referees been told to defer comment.

Monday night's game offered a perfect example to use the new rule: a critical call by an NBA referee in a clutch situation that made a large impact on the outcome of the game. With 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Jeff Withey was fouled by the Houston Rockets as he went to finish a dunk that would have evened the score. Here's the play:

What were the refs watching on this play? How do you miss this? Might be the worst "no-call" I've ever seen. — Jeremiah Jensen (@JJSportsBeat) January 5, 2016

There is an established process of how to go about this, one I experienced firsthand Monday night. After I posted my observations about the call on Twitter, Jazz PR man Jonathan Rinehart informed me that media could seek comment from the referees on critical plays. Along with two other members of the local media, I formally made the request to speak with the referees about the decision.

It was decided that I would act as the "pool reporter" representative of the media, mostly because I write for the internet and therefore don't have a hard deadline to finish my story. On the play-by-play account of the game, I identified two plays that we wanted to ask the referees about, and circled them.

Rinehart and I went through a couple of layers of security to get to the locker room of the referees, where another security guard was posted. There, we handed the circled plays to the security guard, who would request comment on the calls from the referee crew chief Tom Washington.

Here's where protocol starts to differ from reality. About a minute later, the guard came back with the news that the officials would not be commenting on the plays, as they were not questions of rule interpretation. In other words, he rejected the request.

In speaking with the NBA today, I learned that that was a mistake on Washington's part. Under the new regulations, Washington should have accepted the request to comment on the plays.

It's hard to blame Washington too much: leading up to this season, Washington has referred 24 seasons and 1,441 regular season games in which he has not had to face the media in this situation. However, under the new rules, he should have answered the questions.

If Washington had accepted the request at that point, he would have answered short, direct questions on the plays circled on the sheet. The PR director would have recorded the interview, transcribed the questions and answers, and released the results to all media.

So far, a "pool reporter" referee interview request has been made just four times in over two months of NBA action, and not since Nov. 14. In the four previous times, however, the referees accepted the request, about topics as diverse as coach ejections, defensive goaltending calls, inadvertent whistles, and out-of-bounds calls.

The NBA wants to prevent the sort of miscommunication that happened Monday night. As a result, future NBA referee media requests will also be communicated to the league office, which will pass word through the Replay Center in Secaucus to the referees that they'll be interviewed at the end of the game. That should ensure that the referees know that they're supposed to be open to the media in these situations, unless it were something the league office would need to review long-term (again, like a fight).

In the end, what the NBA wants to avoid is the perception that NBA referees are not held accountable for their decisions. They have been held to close scrutiny internally for years, but only recently have there been mechanisms to allow more public accountability. Big data via SportVu cameras in the ceiling of every NBA arena also add a layer of performance measurement. The release of the NBA's Last Two Minute report and the new protocol described here indicates a new level of openness from the league.

In the end, here's how the NBA's report described the critical call above: "Harden (HOU) and Harrell (HOU) both make contact with Withey's (UTA) arm and affect his dunk attempt."

While that's not consolation to the players, coaches, and fans involved, at least the league has made clear that a mistake has been made. Kudos to the league for taking the next step: comment directly from the referees on the night of the call.

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Andy Larsen


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