Mike’s Take: As the Whistle Blows

Just a few minutes after Stephen Jackson incurred a technical for reacting to a non-call in last night’s Nets-Bobcats matchup, teammate Shaun Livingston was zapped with a T when he hit his arm to indicate that Brook Lopez had made contact with more than the ball when he blocked Livingston’s jump shot. This used to be an acceptable practice, but officials won’t tolerate any backtalk this season, be it verbal or physical. With the NBA’s new quick trigger policy on technical fouls in effect, all displays of dissent are punishable by the almighty technical foul.

Officials don’t want to hear any protests or see any demonstrative actions in response to a call or non-call. They emphasized this point at the annual referee meeting back in September when the league announced that the guidelines for technical fouls have been expanded to include “overt” player reactions to referee calls. Whether a player throws an air punch or cracks an incredulous smile, the referees have been instructed to hit him with a technical right away. There are observers at games making sure the refs do their jobs and enforce the new rules that have been put into place. And so the refs have been complying: During the 2010-11 preseason technicals were called at a rate of 2.42 per game vs. 1.76 per game in 2009-10.

I have mixed feelings about the new policy. On the one hand, players must respect the officials and their decisions. Blatant shows of disrespect or attempts to intimidate officials cannot be tolerated. Given the fast-paced nature of basketball, officials have an extremely tough job to do. And by and large they do it well. In fact, according to league managers their percentage of accuracy is in the high nineties.

I understand that over the years players have gotten increasingly vocal and oftentimes carried away with how many times they protest calls during the course of a game, as if nobody’s fouling. If you want to see on-court dramatics elevated to an art form, watch the European competitions and how players gesticulate and flop from start to finish. While some audience members may enjoy the theatrics, many fans consider it poor sportsmanship and have little patience for whiners on the court. When players complain about every other call it reflects poorly on the league and can interrupt the flow of the game.

Likewise, stopping play to whistle a technical can also disrupt the rhythm and pace of a game. And what makes the NBA game so great is the passion and emotion that the players bring to the court night in and night out. If players are forced to become emotionless in games in order to abstain from reacting to calls, people will start saying they don’t care. But it’s not that they don’t care, they just can’t show that they care.

You also have to consider the practical implications of this crackdown. A player can rack up a couple technicals in no time and his team could lose a key player for a night and wind up losing the game because a guy raised his hands. You have to wonder about suspensions that might take place during the critical back stretch because a player may have overreacted to a few calls too many during the long regular season (the 16th technical foul results in a one-game suspension, followed by another one-game suspension for every two additional techs thereafter).

Officials have to be careful about how far they take the zero-tolerance approach, and the new mandate must be monitored closely. Perhaps the officials are coming down particularly hard early in the season in order to drive their point home and hopefully condition the players to be more respectful. They may ease up as we come to the playoffs.

I think players need to play with emotion. That’s what makes this game so great. If not handled correctly, this emphasis on respecting the game could ultimately squelch the fire that ignites players and fans alike.

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