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League's answer to floppers might run foul upon further review

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Blake Griffin and others might want to think twice next season before faking a foul. (US Presswire)  
Blake Griffin and others might want to think twice next season before faking a foul. (US Presswire)  

ELIZABETH, N.J. -- There was talk of block-charges, basket interference and illegal screens. There were plenty of replays revealing moved pivot feet and successful ploys by jump-shooters to initiate contact and trick the referee into calling a defensive foul.

And it wouldn't have been the annual NBA referee camp without some good-natured (and in most cases, deserved) needling of the writers and broadcasters who cover the sport and often have no idea what the rules are when they argue -- over the airwaves, in print or online -- that the officials got that one wrong.

I don't exclude myself from that deserving group of the humbled and humiliated. In the 10-question, true-or-false exam given to the media Thursday at the Renaissance Newark Airport hotel, my final tally was three right and seven wrong. As it turns out, I have no more business being an NBA ref than those replacement refs had serving their ill-fated tenure in the NFL.

"I think what happened in the other league shows how difficult a job it is to ref at the pro level, and I'll just speak to it whenever I have the chance," said Mike Bantom, the NBA's newly appointed executive vice president of referee operations.

As the NFL's officiating fiasco showed us, NBA refs are -- for the first time in a long while -- not the lone object of scorn and derision in American sports. And though the NBA hasn't used replacement officials since the 2009 preseason, the NFL's unpleasant experience with its referee lockout should leave no doubt that in every sport, the regular guys are the best chance we have at competently officiated games.

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"I want to maximize the consistency and accuracy of calls," Bantom said, "and make sure that the integrity of our game and our staff is beyond reproach."

Such words could never have been uttered with a straight face only five years ago, when the NBA was embroiled in the betting scandal surrounding former referee Tim Donaghy. When Donaghy pleaded guilty to betting on games he officiated and providing tips to gamblers, the scandal cast a wide net that ensnared every official and impugned the credibility of an entire industry. Long-held conspiracy theories that the league's officials favored certain players and teams in certain markets were fueled anew, and the league faced a serious credibility crisis.

Two straight years of these preseason officiating camps were shrouded in controversy -- first, in the aftermath of the Donaghy mess and then, with a referee lockout that was settled with a two-year deal only days before the 2009-10 season was to tip off. That season, unlike in the NFL's case, the replacement refs were out before the regular season began.

And as referee operations officials Bantom, Joe Borgia and Don Vaden deftly illustrated calls that turned on the splitting of hairs with the benefit of instant replay, it was notable that the biggest issue facing NBA referees -- flopping -- was not discussed. That's because the league's newly formed competition committee -- which now includes coaches and owners -- has decided to punt that issue to the league office, where judgment calls are made the morning after with the benefit of multiple angles and time to interpret players' intent and study their track records.

Perhaps recognizing that NBA refs have enough on their plates, including the ever-expanding use of in-game instant replay to change calls, the league is finalizing a new policy that is likely to subject flopping to postgame review, as opposed to making it an in-game infraction, a league spokesman said Thursday. Like technical and flagrant fouls, the new policy being contemplated by the league would put flopping under the jurisdiction of league disciplinarian Stu Jackson, whose office would review the plays and possibly assess fines.

Some will like the league's answer to flopping, and others will say it's not enough. And while I recognize the benefit of taking it out of the referees' hands, the new approach -- if adopted -- could open up a whole new can of worms in a sports environment that clearly does not tolerate officiating incompetence. Suppose LeBron James drives to the basket on the final possession of a playoff game, with the Miami Heat trailing by a point. He misses the shot, but dupes the official into calling a shooting foul by flopping. James sinks both free throws, the Heat win the game and advance to the next round. But what happens when the league fines James $25,000 the next morning for flopping on the play? What the league would be saying, essentially, is that James shouldn't have been awarded free throws and the Heat shouldn't have won. Chaos, would ensue, as it often does with these controversies -- be it a disputed Hail Mary in the end zone or a superstar call late in an NBA game.

The NBA has been wrestling with this issue for years, and despite commissioner David Stern focusing his considerable angst upon it, smart minds have not been able to come up with a better remedy. Maybe that's because there is none. Truth be told, given how far NBA officiating has come in the years since Donaghy, it's remarkable that this is the only federal case on the docket.

This would explain the jovial atmosphere at Thursday's referee camp, where broadcasters were openly ridiculed by league officials, referees and fellow broadcasters when they didn't know the answer to many of Borgia's you-make-the-call questions. But flopping notwithstanding, there was some official business to be transacted:

 Officiating points of emphasis for the 2012-13 season will include illegal screens; freedom of movement for cutting offensive players; contact with or by jump shooters; block-charge calls; traveling; and so-called "respect for the game" rules. Vaden, the NBA's vice president and director of officials, said there had been "a little bit of slippage" last season as far as player conduct and reactions toward officials. Referees also will continue to emphasize a recent rule change stating that contact drawn by an offensive player making a side-to-side "rip" move will not result in a shooting foul.

 Officials will now be able to use instant replay to determine whether a defender was inside or outside the restricted area on a block-charge call in the last two minutes of regulation and all of overtime. Similarly, if the crew is uncertain about a goaltending or basket interference call in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter or all of overtime, instant replay can be used. In both instances, there has to have been a call made and the officials have to be uncertain in order for replay to be triggered.

 In the past, officials could only use instant replay to determine the severity of a flagrant foul, penalty-two -- the unnecessary and excessive variety. Starting this season, flagrants will simply be called flagrants on the floor and all will be reviewed to determine if they were flagrant-ones (unnecessary), flagrant-twos, a common foul or a technical foul.

 The current officiating staff stands at 62, Bantom said, with only one official -- Tommy Nunez -- not returning from last season.

Those 62 men and women, once the most scorned group of officials in American sports, have the luxury of being under the radar for once. At least until their first blown call -- or one that fans and announcers are convinced, often incorrectly, that they got wrong.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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