In my last posting I commented on the National Basketball Association’s crackdown on unsportsmanlike conduct on the court. The athletes are unhappy about it – and predictably the Players’ Association is threatening to appeal to a different sort of court. "I really think its incumbent upon the commissioner to kind of tell the referees, instruct them they got to back off a little bit," Billy Hunter,the Association director, has warned. "I think what may ultimately happen if it continues to occur is we will probably be compelled to bring an unfair labor practice action or something. Try to seek some relief, at least to have the issue either heard or at least elevated so that it gets a lot more public attention than its currently getting."
The players’ case does have merit, although not to the point of legal action. One argument against the zero-tolerance policy (although the NBA does not call it that) is that highly competitive athletes respond automatically to perceived injustice, just as fans and good citizens do; and that the NBA has gone too far in trying to control honest emotions. More to the point I think: the NBA is and always has been a players game. Not a coaches’ game. Not an officials’ game. The new interpretation of unsportsmanlike conduct gives too much power to referees to decide the outcome of the game by ejecting a key player (like Mike Bibby and Carmelo Anthony) at a critical juncture. Even the mild-mannered (if whiny) Tim Duncan has run afoul of the new regulations. Coaches point out that the crackdown means that marginal officials – those with the poorest judgment, the worst game management temperament – now have a license to kill.
The truth lies somewhere between the two positions. It should be resolved through experience and good judgment. No one wants professional basketball to become like major league baseball (although MLB has become much better), where frequent screaming at umpires without penalty is punctuated by ejections for no apparent reason. The situation is complicated, however, by growing player resentment against Commissioner David Stern for such arbitrary decisions as mandating a stricter dress code and insisting on a new basketball despite frequent player complaints.
Perhaps a non-controversial figure such as Donald Rumsfeld should be brought in to soothe tensions.