The NBA’s Fine System For Criticizing Refs Isn’t Just Stupid, It’s Failing

NBA referee
Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle argues a call with referee Derek Richardson Soobum Im USA TODAY Sports

If I was a member of the National Basketball Association’s cadre, the title of this piece alone might have cost me a game’s pay or a few days of work time. Ever since the league started cracking down on dissent in the league, it’s broadened its penal system on what constitutes a punishable offense. As Dallas Maverick PA announcer Sean Heath just discovered, you don’t even have to be an NBA player or coach anymore to catch some heat for criticizing the work of the league’s referees. If commenters on internet comment systems were fined like league employees are for performance critiques, the World Wide West would be a lot more civilized.

As a marketing-happy organization, the NBA knows that it must maintain a happy-go-lucky exterior. Ratings, sponsorships, and business opportunities greatly depend on it in an image-driven climate. As a product, not so much a sport anymore, the NBA must be sold without imperfection. One employee, in this case a PA announcer, calling out the validity of another, in this case a referee, calls into question the integrity of the NBA product as a whole. It no longer becomes an issue of two warring souls arguing over a playground play, it’s the failing of an image conscious league to work out its product kinks behind closed doors.

But, it’s very public way of damning dissent doesn’t really help in this instance, nor does it help the quality of the product it is selling. Just as Sean Heath thinks unfair calls are made too frequently in the game, so do fans not directly associated with the league. Granted, Heath’s below tweet crossed the line of professionalism—he still has a job to do—but suspending him for two games (which the league has since rescinded) only calls more attention to the problem.

Since Heath was “suspended,” all major outlets have flocked to report on the story. The greatest of Heath’s crimes was to criticize a late-game call that cost the Mavs the game, and that could cost them their season depending on how the rest plays out. A call that the league later admitted was a faulty one.

Given the attention the initial story received, then the second wave of reporting that Heath wasn’t in fact suspended, and the last admitting that Heath was justified in his rage, the league brought on itself the very opposite of what it was hoping to do with a fine system: bad press.

They can fine coaches during the playoffs, fine players during the regular season, up the fine amounts, fine teams, etc, but the very public act of discipline isn’t just stupid, it’s failing. At no point do league employees, especially players earning extraordinary amounts of money, worry about the eventual repercussions. To them, a sense of fairness seems to be more important. And as an organization, there’s plenty else the league can do to assuage fears that fairness trumps all within its domain. Starting with putting an end to its ludicrous fine system anytime anyone has anything bad to say about its referees.

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