Excuse this interruption of your NLT election coverage. I fiddle while Rome burns.
Technical fouls in the NBA this season are up 48%. Big time players are being thrown out of the game at a record pace. A mildly harsh glance or gesture merits the hangman’s noose from rabbit-eared referees. This is no surprise. League officials made it known before the season that they would implement what might be called the Rasheed Wallace rule to crack down on those coaches and players who engage in "conduct detrimental to the game." Sheed, for those of you who don’t follow the NBA, is the notorious ref-hater who plays for the Detroit Pistons and whose performance theater whenever he is assessed a foul must make his old college coach, Dean Smith, blush.
If you are curious, the NBA rule book (Rule 12, Section V) defines unsportsmanlike conduct meriting a technical foul to include: (1) Disrespectfully addressing an official; (2) Physically contacting an official; (3) Overt actions indicating resentment to a call [Running tirades, continuous criticism or griping]; (4) Use of profanity; and (7) Taunting.
The rule itself has not changed. Players have been saying bad things about officials and life in general ever since James Naismith nailed up the first peach basket. Referees have always used their best judgment as to which of these actions actually merits a technical foul or ejection from the game. Most of the time the referees, especially in professional sports, will look, or listen, in the other direction. Control of the game is what matters to them, not amour-propre. Although different referees have different standards, there is a generally understood line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. For instance, contrary to common wisdom, there are typically no "magic words" that will get you thrown out of the game, despite the ban on profanity. What matters is how the words are used. One can usually advise an official that he has made a poor (fill in your own favorite word) call without penalty. But if you tell him he is a poor (same word) official, it’s time for an early shower. There is also an element of gamesmanship in establishing or challenging the line. Players and coaches will try to intimidate weak officials. They will beg to encourage make-up calls. Coaches might draw a "T" and even get kicked out of the game to inspire their own team or the crowd – the famous Red Auerbach ploy.
It is therefore a matter of interest when the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior is redrawn deliberately as a matter of policy. Several years ago, apparently in an attempt to appeal to hip-hop culture, NBA referees were told or permitted to take a somewhat more relaxed attitude toward player behavior. The result was Rasheed Wallace and players like him as players pushed the boundary as far as they dared. Another result, arguably, was the riot in Detroit two years ago when players rushed into the stands during a fight that started on-court. After last year a number of the NBA’s most experienced officials reportedly said, "It’s Rasheed or us, take your pick. We’ll quit unless you do something." The ladies and gentlemen who pay the big bucks to sit at courtside, and the NBA’s more staid corporate sponsors, presumably had something to do with it as well.
So we now have the NBA adopting the Rudy Guiliani approach of taking care of the small stuff, arresting graffiti artists and window-breakers to make a larger point about law and order. The NFL – the most violent and most regimented of the major sports – has always been of this persuasion, to the point of carefully defining which end-zone celebrations are allowed and which are not. They cracked down again this year. Lambeau leaps are grandfathered in, but lying on the ground and using the football for a prop is strictly verboten. Get that, T.O.? Such rules seem silly. Can you really legislate good taste, let alone sportsmanship? But the NFL reasons that if you do not draw the line firmly, the players would soon be conducting animal sacrifices after a touchdown. You may laugh, but last season Chad Johnson mentioned that he was planning to use a reindeer he was keeping in his garage for his latest extravaganza.
If you’ve attended or seen a high school recently – I’m sure it’s true in junior high as well – the behavior of the pros definitely filters down. And so if your local rec league referee isn’t quite as forgiving as in the past, perhaps you’ll understand. In any case, the NBA’s latest lessons in minding your manners are worth following.