WNBA officiating is a disgrace
This kind of reaction is all too common.
This kind of reaction is all too common.
Posted Jul 27, 2007

OK. I’ve finally had it. After the latest officiating debacle at the Mohegan Sun Arena, I just cannot take it any more.

Heaven knows, I’m sick enough of missed layups (the Sun missed eight in a single quarter earlier this season), but neither I nor the league can shoot the ball for the players. But the second most embarrassing aspect of the league is the inconsistency and inadequacy of the officiating.

Simply put, the WNBA needs to do something about the referees. Far too many of them just don’t belong in a professional basketball league -- and, what's worse, the powers that be don’t seem to care.

Players and coaches want just a few things from a referee: consistency, positioning,  neutrality. The last is not an issue in the league, where nobody credible has ever suggested that the referees favor one team over another. But inconsistency and lousy positioning are distressingly common in many games.

Consistency has two aspects: (1) make the same calls on every player; and (2)make the same calls throughout the game. Positioning also has two aspects: (1) being on the right place on the court (these areas are pretty well defined for the three-person crews used) and (2) focus on the areas where violations of the rules are likely to be found.

How have WNBA officials failed us in these areas? I don’t pretend to have a count or a catalog of bad and good calls, but the Minnesota-Connecticut game on June 17 had stunning examples of failures in all four aspects set out above.

  • Consistency: Two minutes remaining, Sun up by five, Lindsay Whalen with the ball four feet above the key, dribbling laterally (not into the lane). The call: carrying the ball on the dribble. This was the first and only carry called in 40 minutes of play.

    (1) Seimone Augustus had rolled her hand over the ball prior to driving around a defender repeatedly throughout the game. No calls = inconsistency of player.

    (2) Whalen had made exactly the same dribble move half a dozen or more times. No calls = inconsistency during the contest.

    An official simply cannot make that carrying call in the 38th minute of a close game.

    The Lynx failed to score after the “turnover”, and with one minute left, still up by five, Whalen drove off a screen at the high post.

  • Positioning: Augustus, guarding Katie Douglas near the arc on the baseline, rotated to help, and there was contact in the lane five feet from the hoop. The call: a double whistle. The lead official called a block; the trail official, 25 feet from the foul and screened by several players, called an offensive foul on Whalen. Now Augustus is a superb athlete, but it was a physical impossibility for her to establish position as a help defender given the distances involved.

    (1): The trail official could not possibly have had an adequate view of the play at the opposite side baseline. That the crew was unable to resolve the call correctly just adds to the travesty. The lead was (a) the crew chief, and (b) had call priority on a foul with the action moving toward her. Generally, she should defer only if a violation occurred before the foul. In this case, the trail called a foul, not a violation, and should have deferred to the lead. The result should have been the block, but after conferring, the crew got it wrong both ways, letting the trail official make the call, and then going with the charge.

    (2):Throughout the game, this particular crew seemed clueless about one of the most basic tenets of officiating: Don’t watch the ball. None of them called fouls on body contact. None of them called traveling from the lead position. They made almost no calls off the ball, a clear indication that too many people were following the ballhandler or watching the shot. They repeatedly missed contact following the shot, or in transition. That failure to control off-ball contact led directly to a technical foul call toward the end of the game. Asjha Jones, among other players on both teams, had been knocked to the floor several times at the end of plays, or during transition, with no calls made. The players could see it, and more and more action occurred off the ball, until Jones retaliated to being popped as the cutter, and was called for a technical foul.

The most embarrassing call, however, was so amazingly inept that it is still hard to believe the crew (Amy Bonner, Barb Smith, and Lamont Simpson – the worst combination imaginable, unless you were to add Kurt Walker) were paid by a professional basketball league. Less than 50 seconds, Connecticut inbounding following a Minnesota basket. The coaches warn Simpson that they will pass the ball out of bounds along the baseline. The Sun do so, Jones to Douglas, who then launches an errant pass that is picked off just beyond midcourt.

The lead official, Bonner, blows the play dead, ruling that the clock did not start when Douglas (who was out of bounds) caught Jones’ pass. Of course, besides being 65 feet from the play and having no reason to be looking at the clock (particularly with the steal directly in front of her), she also made a call that she obviously did not see or recognize as a legitimate out-of-bounds play. The timer correctly started the clock only when the ball was touched inbounds. Just as telling as Bonner’s error, however, is that Simpson did not clue his fellow officials in to the play that he knew was about to happen. Thorough communication in an end-game situation is another officiating basic this crew neglected.

Notice that the two paragraphs above describe only two minutes of a single game. While this crew was especially inept, unfortunately the level of performance is not unusual. More importantly, it is not necessary.

Connecticut’s next game boasted two thirds of my dream crew: Lisa Mattingly, perhaps the best women’s official at any level, and Jeff Smith, the model of consistency and decorum. If the league added Denise Brooks-Clauser, the crew would have been the best available.

The result? A game in which the officials went virtually unnoticed. One in which the players knew what to expect, and played within those expectations. One in which the players could maintain the flow of the game uninterrupted by unexpected whistles. Almost nobody complained. (The third member of the crew, Josh Tivin, was from the NBA developmental league, and did a fine job working with a fine crew.)

Unfortunately, the league rarely puts its best together, hoping to get at least one outstanding official on every crucial game. In theory, that sounds fine, but even the best can have their performance affected by inadequate partners, as they try to compensate for the failings of their colleagues. (It is always easier to have a good game as an official if you can absolutely trust your partners, and just focus on your area of responsibility).

  I have been a high school basketball official for nine years, and I have some idea of how hard it is to control a game with ten bodies moving quickly and independently  in a relatively small area. And I am officiating young girls, on teams that are fortunate if they can put two athletic, skilled players on the court at once. Most WNBA teams have five outstanding athletes on the floor at once and WNBA games are orders of magnitude harder to officiate. Officiating WNBA games is a really hard job, the most difficult in women’s sports. [And, for the record, I could not officiate in this league, either.]

It has been accurately said, that officials are the only participants in basketball who are expected to be100% successful. Obviously, being human, that will never happen. But the officials we see messing up the game have been selected, and are being paid, to referee in this league. For most of them, 100% is not even distantly on the horizon. Why can’t they do a much better job?

The simplest way to answer that question is with another. Where are the great college officials? Sure, Mattingly, Brooks-Clauser, Bonita Spence, and Bob Trammel work the WNBA, but where are the other really good officials we see working tournament games in BCS leagues? They are at home, because the league does not pay them enough to entice them to the league.

Experienced BCS officials earn about $1,200 per game plus travel, lodging and a per diem payment. WNBA officials earn between $600 and $800 per game, with similar extras.

Is there some basic capitalist logic to be discerned here? Let’s see, you can work all summer all over the place and earn as little at half what the NCAA gives you, or you can pursue other interests and take a break from the rat race of officiating. Is that such a tough choice? Apparently not. But the difference is so little money in the grand scheme of things.

To see how silly it is to be cheap about officials, look at the numbers. Say the average game fee is $700 in the WNBA. That’s just $1,500 less per game than the NCAA rate for a three-person crew. But because there are two teams paying the officials, the total is only $750 more per team. Over a 34-game schedule, that is a bill of just $25,500 per team for the entire season.

Would paying better be enough to get better officials? (Connecticut’s management, for one, has offered to pay the extra, and been turned down). I admit that I cannot guarantee that a pay increase would entice better officials. But eventually, top officials are professionals making a living. There is a price at which the talent and experience of the crews could be substantially improved. The league is rightfully careful about expenses, but can it really afford not to improve the officiating?

Heaven knows, nearly everyone complains about the referees. Coach’s complaints are easy to ignore, asa complaining is a part of the job. But when Tamika Catchings – one of the most restrained and professional superstars ever to put on a uniform –  gets so fed up with the incompetence of the officials that she receives a technical foul (June 29 against Connecticut), something is wrong.

Maybe more important is the effect of these sloppy contests on the public perception of the women’s game. Lousy officiating drives marginal, but knowledgeable, fans away from the women’s game. This league can not afford to lose that casual, usually male, fan. Isn’t $24,000 a season worth it to increase the chance that the casual fan will become a regular ticket-buyer?

Ultimately, though, it appears that the league simply doesn’t care about poor officiating. Is there any ongoing training? It looks as though there is not, but actually there are review sessions for officials after every game.

But if so, why do the same mistakes keep being made? For example, Becky Hammon travels are at least a third of her drives to the paint. No call, and no apparent awareness that there should be one. Unfair advantage? Sure. Margo Dydek is hardly my favorite athlete, but she is consistently penalized for being 7-2. On literally every rebound, she is fouled with arms or body as players jump to try to reach the ball. Yet she rarely gets a call. Unfair disadvantage? Sure. Yet, except for the rare dream crews described above, nothing changes.

And then there are those easy calls that seem to be routinely missed. I hardly need to list examples for our readership, but here’s just a few: traveling. A cardinal rule of officiating is not to stare at the ball, yet lead officials do so constantly, missing the shuffles and extra steps, particularly in the post. Following the ball also results in the almost universal tolerance for moving screens (watch Ruth Riley). Watch only the ballhandler and you miss the moving screen. Can’t we do better than this?

Of course we can. Even if the league will not pay more, how about this idea? Let’s get some NCAA men’s officials in here. I know this is politically incorrect, but it is obvious that the men’s college game moves at a faster pace than the women’s college game, and has athleticism more resembling that of the WNBA. Frequently, the WNBA officials just seem too slow to get into position to see what is happening on the court. Most men’s officials have nothing to officiate in the summer. Would at least some of them be willing to work, if just for the extra practice? (I do summer league games, including a college-age women’s league, for less than half what I’m paid for a varsity high school match.) Right now, we occasionally see NBA developmental league refs, and some of them are already much better than two-thirds of the WNBA regulars. Can you tell me that no fourth or fifth year college men’s officials want to work in the summer?

But even if no changes are made in the roster of officials, why not let them work in crews? At least they could learn each others’ strengths, tendencies, and weaknesses. We know players need to practice in teams to be effective. Why would it be different for basketball referees? No reason other than “that’s not how it’s done”.

If major league baseball keeps crews together in a sport where officials are mostly making solo calls, it makes much more sense for basketball, which requires constant shifting of coverage and communication. Having set crews would also allow players and coaches to learn their tendencies, and adjust play to fit that crew’s preferences, leading to smoother games. If the crews were moved around among teams just as individuals are now, it would avoid any tendency to become too familiar with a particular team.

Whatever the solution, something needs to be done. The officiating just has not kept pace with the talent in the league. The players deserve better. The fans deserve better.

This league, after all, is the flagship for all of women’s basketball in the United States, and the officiating is widely agreed to be one of the major issues. In short, the sport deserves better -- and the sooner the better.

Jim Clark is a career prosecutor in the New Haven Connecticut State’s Attorney’s Office. He has tried 34 murder cases, and dozens of other felonies. He officiates high school volleyball, basketball and softball, and is a triathlete. He has written for Full Court Press since 1997.

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