Are Basketball Referees Magic? Paragons of Virtue?

Let us imagine a time when the basketball referee had not yet been thought of. Play was dirty -- nasty and brutish, we might even say. The team that won was usually the team that cheated the most. Fans who wanted to see basketball played, rather than a wrestling match, grew disgusted. Players anger and greed and ambition continually got the better of them, prompting them to flout the rules. Violence and injuries were rampant.

Finally, someone hit on the idea of having referees. The idea is that they would not be part of the competition themselves, but merely enforcers of the rules of the competition. But a number of people pooh-poohed this idea: What, are referees supposed to be magical creatures who could mysteriously rise above the conflict on the court? Aren't the referees themselves human beings who are subject to the very vices to which the players are prone?

Of course, the usefulness of having referees does not at all depend on their being magical, or free of vice. It does not depend on them being a better person in any sense than is the average player. Rather, they are expected to act differently than the players do because they have been given a distinct role in the game: they are not (by the design of their role) interested in the outcome of the game, but only in seeing that the rules of the game are observed, or, if they are not, that the proper penalties are enforced.

Referees do not make the world of basketball perfect. They themselves are self-interested, but, they have been given a motive to use their self-interest to be great referees. If they use it to enrich themselves by, say, throwing games, they face prison and humiliation. Obviously, that does not stop malfeasance from occurring: referees do throw games, they do come to favor certain players and dislike others, and they can become more concerned with their own authority than they are with the rules. Well, we live in an imperfect world, so why should we expect this aspect of it to be any different than any other?

Of course, we should do what we can to hold the refs to their assigned roles. But in the quest for perfection, it seems quixotic to suggest the solution is eliminating the referees, since they are all flawed human beings. Should we, perhaps, let each team hire its own referees, who will then enter into arbitration with the refs from the other team whenever there is a whistle blown? I'm not at all sure that will help.

The analogies to some recent discussions on the state, here and elsewhere, are so obvious that I will not spell them out further.


  1. It would probably be a more useful analogy if your first paragraph weren't way off base as a description of un-refereed basketball games. I'm pretty sure there wouldn't be basketball courts in every YMCA in the country if the typical pickup game was like that description.

    (Nonetheless, that doesn't mean I think we could do away with referees in the NBA.)

    1. Well, Shonk, those games are just for fun, right? What would they be like if the players' livelihoods were at stake?

    2. Hence my parenthetical.

    3. Yes, but hence my inclusion of "the fans" in my description: I wasn't thinking of or describing casual pickup games, but games for stakes.

      This could have been made more explicit, I admit, but I did deliberately put in fans to give it a setting of "serious stuff."

  2. Good afternoon, Dr. Callahan.

    "They themselves are self-interested, but, they have been given a motive to use their self-interest to be great referees. If they use it to enrich themselves by, say, throwing games, they face prison and humiliation."

    Yes, we need referees in both basketball and in society.

    Unfortunately, the referees in the game of basketball are put under a harsher judgment/penalty than are the referees in society. As you stated, NBA referees that break the rules are humiliated and imprisoned. See Tim Donaghy.

    Politicians who break the rules either go undetected and get a second term or detected and get a second term.

    The group that regulates the NBA referees has a self-interest in making sure that the referees are honest. The group that regulates the politician (51% of the people) has a self-interest in making sure that politician is dishonest -- in their favor, of course.

    Now, thank God, it has not become that stark, but we are moving in that direction.

    But, yes, there is a need for the referee.

  3. Anonymous6:47 AM

    I see the basketball analogy. It is a good one. I don't know much about basketball, though.

  4. Anonymous4:17 PM

    My response:


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