By John Schmeelk
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Get every call right. That’s the goal of every official, umpire, or referee in every sport.
Instant replay helps the people responsible for making those calls less likely to make a mistake that can cost a team a game. Humans will always make errors, but instant replay often corrects most of them, and nearly always the most egregious of them.
But on Tuesday night we saw why replay in the NBA doesn’t always work the way it is designed. One team can get the short end of the stick according the letter of law, while justice is done according to the spirit of the rules or vice versa.
First, let me reference a great post by Zach Harper over at CBS Sports that explains the call in question and the rule interpretation. I’m not going to get into the interpretation of “the hand is part of the ball,” but rather how replay can sometimes take the ball away from a team that deserves to keep it.
To quickly summarize, on Tuesday night Matt Barnes knocked the ball out of the hands of Reggie Jackson, sending it out of bounds. No foul was called, and the ball was awarded to the Oklahoma City Thunder. This is a common situation in basketball at any level. Often in rebounding and loose ball situations, it looks as though one player fouls another going for the ball but the contact isn’t obvious. Rather than stopping the game and calling the foul, the referee often just awards the ball to the team he thinks got fouled but wasn’t sure about. This is the epitome of the “let them play” mantra everyone likes to subscribe to.
It’s a compromise most players and coaches are fine with in the end. They might not get the foul but they get the ball. It’s the equivalent of playing in the park and the settlement to an argument is giving a team the ball but not the point resulting from a contested play. Officials makes calls like these subconsciously in every game, knowing that in the end the team that should be getting the ball gets the ball. It’s an inherent compromise all sides are fine with. It has always worked. It keeps the game moving with fewer fouls called, keeps the best players on the court and out of foul trouble, and everyone accepts it.
But times are changing, and instant replay has added a new wrinkle to this unspoken of arrangement between players and officials. Now, after a call like that referees are required to go to the replay to see who the ball really hit off of. Often, the replay will show a clear foul, and then the ball going off the hands of the player that got hit. The official has no choice but to give the ball to the team that had in fact committed a foul to retain possession. Rules do not allow the official to retroactively call a foul. The letter of the law is followed but the spirit of the rules is broken. One team is punished when it shouldn’t be. It’s not fair to anyone involved.
On Tuesday night the officials determined that they couldn’t tell who the ball went off when they looked at the replay. It’s hard to believe. Much more likely and what Doc Rivers believes is that they saw Barnes whack Jackson on the wrist forcing the ball out of bounds, and called it inconclusive because they knew that the Thunder deserved the basketball because Barnes fouled Jackson. Rivers was rightfully furious about it, because a similar call against Chris Paul in the Golden State series worked against his team. A ball out of bounds was called off of the Warriors, but instant replay showed it went off of Paul. The replay also showed an egregious foul committed on Paul that was missed. The Clippers lost out again.
It’s not the officials’ fault. With the action moving so fast it’s often impossible to tell if a player hits a hand, wrist or ball. If every reach-in or over-the-back was called, games would take three hours and everyone would have five fouls in the fourth quarter. No one wants that, nor do they want even more fouls called in the final minutes when replay is put into effect. Everyone wants to see these guys play, not shoot free throws.
So what’s the answer?
The easy answer is that officials would be allowed to call or reverse foul calls based on replay. It would be an unprecedented path that no other sport has embarked upon. Every foul call would have to be reviewed in the final minutes and judgment calls would be made or changed based on replay. It’s messy and would cause more problems than it would solve. How would officials decide what a foul is? By the letter of the law or by how they called the game so far? Each game has its own identity and almost develops its own rules as to what is a foul along the way. This will never happen.
My solution is a simpler one. I want to reintroduce the concept of the “force out” that was put into the rules in 1974 and removed in 1977. I would alter the original rule drastically, and allow the referee to rule that physical contact forced the ball to go out of bounds, and award the ball to the team that was not responsible for that contact. This is a fairly open-ended rule and its application would have to be limited, but it would allow a “force out” to be ruled in the Barnes and Paul situations above and award the correct team the ball. It wouldn’t call a retroactive foul on the player going over the back or reaching in, but it would give the ball to the right team. The rule would only apply on replays and could read something like this:
“If one player illegally contacts another, and the result of which is the ball going out of bounds, the ball will be awarded to the team of the player that was illegally contacted.”
Obviously, the language isn’t great, but it would give the officials the flexibility to properly award the basketball to teams on those instant replay challenges. The emphasis would be to correct egregious calls like the ones mentioned above, but otherwise simply award the ball to the team that didn’t touch it last. Like retroactively calling fouls, it brings judgment into the equation, but I’m not sure the league has any choice in the matter. It’s far from perfect, but I think the concept of a “force out” is a good starting point to solve the problem.
Replay in the NBA is new and the wrinkles are still being ironed out, and this is the biggest challenge the league will face moving forward. There’s no perfect solution, but the league needs to come up with something to avoid the types of plays that have hurt the Clippers twice in the playoffs.
You can follow John on Twitter for everything Knicks, NBA, Giants, and the world of sports at @Schmeelk
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