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Officiating the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament: Is Basketball a Contact or Noncontact Sport ?

The 2016 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is underway, and while brackets have certainly been ‘busted,’ the level of play has been top notch. There has been passion, excitement, and of course heartbreak, but perhaps even more significant was the tremendous amount of basketball played during a 96-hour stretch. The back-to-back-to-back televised games provided viewers with an opportunity to access the status of men’s college basketball. That being said, while the upsets have definitely turned some heads, my head has been turned for a very different reason, the officiating; and while this isn’t going to be a direct assault on the state of officiating in sports, it will point out some pretty obvious problems.

Obviously officials are working a somewhat thankless job, one team usually leaves satisfied with the calls (the winners) and one team usually leaves dissatisfied (the losers). And because every contest has a winner and loser, accessing officiating from a neutral standpoint can become difficult, but thankfully I’m neutral. I’ve been watching the tournament with no true alliances to any one program and therefore, as I watch each contest my view on the officiating can be left void of any distinct biases. As such, it has become relatively clear that, as a sport, basketball is unsure what it wants to become, or what it is. Is basketball a contact, or noncontact sport?

Personally, when considering this question I always go back to my high school playing days. I would always have to go and get a preseason physical. On the high school form that I brought to the doctor, basketball was listed as a ‘non-contact’ sport -- it was on the same list as bowling. Now for anyone who has ever played the sport competitively, they know that basketball is certainly not void of contact. However, the fouls that have been called during the NCAA tournament so far have confused this distinction even further.

It is clear that the NCAA is attempting to take a stand on officiating during the tournament, having officials call more fouls and ensuring the game remains under control. There is also a great incentive for officials to make as many correct calls as possible. The best officials continue to work games throughout the tournament, meaning more money and potentially more prestige. That being said, the subjectivity of officiating can make this more stringent foul calling a huge problem.

First, calling an offensive charge is literally impossible to be consistent with. I don’t care that they’ve put a nice little half circle under the basket; the officials have been easily fooled by flopping and last second slides into the lane throughout these contests. Second, touch fouls are absolutely pointless is basketball continues as a pseudo contact sport. The forwards and centers are permitted to push and body up in the post, but as soon as a guard briefly touches a ball handler, the whistles go off. Third, moving screens are constant and rarely called. Since when has extending your lower knee or leaning into the defender while setting a screen been permitted? And the real kicker comes when a player doesn’t move on a screen, blindsides someone, the defender goes down and the whistle is blown (for evidence, watch some clips of the Wichita State v. Miami game). If it wasn’t a back screen and if the offensive player wasn’t moving, then the defender was simply unlucky, they weren’t fouled. And don’t even get me started on the flagrant 1 and flagrant 2 foul calls, or lack thereof. During the UConn v. Kansas matchup, a UConn player literally took his arm and punched a Kansas defender in the face after a reach in foul was called on that same defender. The officials go to the monitor, and call a technical foul. If punching someone in the face doesn’t explicitly fit the definition of a flagrant foul, why even both having flagrant fouls in the rulebooks at all?

All in all, the officiating throughout the tournament has been extremely suspect. However, I don’t want to simply come down on the officials. The system has set them up to fail. For example, if basketball was announced officially as a non-contact sport, no touching at all, how much easier would these calls be? As soon as there is contact of any kind: foul. That won’t happen though.

So based on the current state of the game, let’s consider player safety as the most crucial aspect of any officiating role. If that’s the case, the benefit always needs to go to the offensive player; which means unless it’s a player control issue, taking a charge as a defender needs to be eliminated. If you told someone walking down the street to stand still in one spot so that someone else could run full speed at them, jump in the air, and throw them to the ground, would they do it? No. It is absolutely ridiculous that this call even exists in the sport of basketball. And based on the tournament, it is clear how incredibly difficult it is for officials to be consistent in making this call.

Overall, if consistency cannot be guaranteed -- as we’ve seen throughout the tournament -- certain calls either need to be eliminated or reconstructed to ensure player safety. While those are just some examples, it’s evident that officiating in basketball has an upward climb in achieving any form on consistency. The final options? Basketball needs to define itself as a contact or noncontact sport once and for all, and allow players to adapt to this definition. Or if that doesn’t happen, maybe 10 officials are needed on the court for each contest. That way, each official can be assigned one player to watch and track throughout a contest.

You can follow the author of this article on Twitter at @lindseydarvin.

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