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Disaster in the making: NBA to penalize players' reactions to refs

NBA referees are going to be blowing their whistles like rush-hour traffic cops early this season: one tweet to penalize a foul, and another to penalize the reaction of the fouling player. It is part of the league's newly enhanced "respect for the game" agenda, and while it is sorely needed, it is also going to be a disaster.

"We're going to expand the universe of unsportsmanlike actions that will be penalized,'' NBA vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson said Friday. "They will include air-punching at an official. Waving him off as a sign of disrespect. Running up to an official from across the court to voice a complaint. Flailing arms in disbelief. Jumping up and down and pirouetting in disbelief or clapping sarcastically at an official. Those are some of the types of actions that really have no place in our game."

The NBA has been trying to outlaw excessive complaining by players since 2006-07, but fans maintain that "NBA players complain too much and do so much more than players in other leagues," Jackson said. "We have a great game with great players and we have a great product. Let's focus on executing offense and defense and being highly competitive, because complaining doesn't have a part in our game and has never changed a noncall to a call, or a call to a noncall. So focus on playing the game."

It is true that players complain far too often -- especially in the playoffs, when poorly played games are rendered altogether unwatchable by badly behaved players who consistently take out their frustrations on the referees. But I believe these new restrictions will backfire for two reasons. One reason is that the players will view these hard-line rules as a manifestation of the collective bargaining negotiations -- another example of the owners trying to make them subservient employees in every way imaginable.

The second reason is that this new understanding comes so completely out of left field as to appear arbitrary. During a meeting Thursday night in Jersey City, N.J., with reporters and team broadcasters, NBA director of officials Bernie Fryer showed a series of player reactions that will now be deemed worthy of technical fouls. Many of them were mild forms of protest in which the player wasn't looking at the referee or was approaching the official emotionally in a nonthreatening, pleading way with his arms extended.

I spoke to a head coach who attended the coaches meeting and watched a similar array of videos earlier this week.

"The coaches thought only one or two of those reactions was a technical foul," said the coach, speaking on behalf of his colleagues. "It's a bad idea."

It is one thing to alter a rule that can be reviewed on video in black-and-white terms. But this new edict will force officials to judge players in emotional terms that will be very difficult to define.

The league's best players are among the biggest complainers, so they will receive more penalties than ever. Will a young referee be willing to hit KobeBryant or Tim Duncan with a technical and cast him out of the game? And what happens when a referee makes a mistake -- knows he made a bad call -- and then has to punish the player for questioning that call? The TV broadcasters will have a lot of fun replaying those sequences. In a lot of these situations, the referee is going to be portrayed as the villain.

Of course the players need to stop grousing. They look like whiners and they set a bad example for young players around the world. Ultimately, there is no easy way to change this behavior.

But wouldn't it be better to enforce this new standard after the anticipated lockout next season? The owners are talking about using the next collective bargaining agreement to seize back control of the league in all kinds of ways, and a harder line on player complaining could be folded into the new era to come. Throughout the ongoing negotiations the players would be warned that it is in their best interests and the interests of the league to abolish the griping. After the lockout there will be much talk of winning back the fans, and an almost-zero-tolerance approach to complaining about the referees could be seen in that light and therefore embraced by all sides.

But right now the players are going to view the new policy as an extension of their bargaining conflict with management. Some fans are going to like the crackdowns, but a lot of people are going to question why some player complaints are being penalized and others are being ignored. Altogether it will be difficult to understand and practically impossible to enforce.