Top college officials can make $3,000 a game, with some guys working four or five games per week over the 4 1/2 month regular season. That's a whole bunch of coin, so if I were part of that elite club, I'd be a megalomaniac and take every assignment I could, as a lot of these guys do.
But this year--for the first time that I can ever recall--I've seen multiple crews in the first three days have real challenges with consistency, as well as legitimate struggles with overall game control, with a number of Thursday's games being on the verge of getting outright chippy. I don't know if guys are working too many games and are mentally fatigued, or if the level of play has gotten so high that come tournament time, a three-man crew--composed arguably of the best guys in the country--simply can't keep up. From my perspective, we have teams turning it up a notch because they're playing for their lives, but this year, it doesn't seem like the officials have that same extra gear.
As a coach, player, or fan, you want the best officials working your games, especially come tournament time. These guys are the very best--but they seem like they're exhausted because they're the best, particularly coming off of the grind of last weekend's conference tournaments. 18-to-23 year-old players still have that reserve tank to tap come the first round. I'm seriously questioning how many 45-to-65 year-old referees do, no matter how fiercely they protest about what great shape they're in.
So, here's a ridiculous proposal--what about four man crews for the conference tournaments and the NCAA tourney? I'm fairly certain that the vast majority of officials would consider that anathema--the floor's already too crowded with three officials, you can't make that change at the most important time of the year and screw up the consistency that (supposedly) carries over from the regular season, yadda, yadda, yadda.
But guess what? Baseball moves from a four-man crew to a six-man crew for the postseason, to no discernible detriment. Sure, the guys down the lines don't dramatically change the rotation for the foursome in the infield--and they can still manage to screw up an infield fly call (witness the 2012 Wild Card game, where I still don't know what LF umpire Sam Holbrook was thinking)--but those guys on the lines are there to help make sure that the crew has the best possible chance of getting every call correct.
On the topic of getting calls correct, what have other sports done to make sure that the game remains the story, rather than the officials becoming part of it?
Hockey? How many years of griping went on about the need for a second guy wearing the armbands before the league finally broke down? At the highest echelon of the sport, the game had simply become too fast for a single referee to maintain control, particularly for all the crap that went on behind the play where a linesman was powerless to call a penalty. And, as much pushback as there was in the early days about there not being enough space on the ice, I can't imagine a single NHL coach or GM who'd like to see the game go back to a single referee.
Football? Well, while the NFL hasn't added a new official in nearly four decades, they've acknowledged the need to adjust their mechanics by moving the umpire into the offensive backfield, since way too many officials were getting crushed by receivers, tight ends, and linebackers (often while being used as a pick by the offensive player). The NCAA made the center judge mandatory across all of Division I FBS two seasons ago, and the game seems none the worse for wear.
Soccer? No clue...I only watch soccer every four years. But, on the topic of soccer, the flopping that goes on at the absolute pinnacle of the sport is ridiculous--and if a player is good at it, he/she is rewarded, rather than penalized. Major kudos to the NHL for implementing a minor penalty two seasons ago for diving. You want to act? Go to Hollywood and wait tables for a few years.
Speaking of acting, the NCAA absolutely must stop this business where a player--typically the dribbler--throws his head back violently in a fashion not seen since Abraham Zapruder was in Dealey Plaza. Players are making a mockery of the game--and, as in soccer, being rewarded for it. As a fan, it's sickening to watch. Period.
So, submitted for your consideration, here's a ridiculous proposal to improve the NCAA tourney...
- First, any official who wishes to be assigned to the first round of the NCAA tournament may work no more than three games in the week preceding the first round. Sure, conferences will bitch, because they'd like to have top officials working every day of their tournaments--and at some point, working one game a day for five straight days at the same venue is a whole lot easier than working three games spread out across a region or the country--but the NFL takes two weeks off before the Super Bowl so players are at the best possible level of physical and mental readiness for the season's ultimate game. I don't think it's absurd for the NCAA to mandate that the independent contractors--and every single zebra you see on the court during the basketball season is an independent contractor--hired to officiate the tourney must not be over-worked heading into the portion of the season that is the highest-profile and highest-revenue for the NCAA. I'm certain that officials would bitch and call it collusion--and maybe it would be, since I'm not a lawyer and don't proclaim to understand such things--but I'm also certain that the NCAA is crafty enough to put their crack team of attorneys on the task and figure out a solution. Hell, they've figured out how to earn billions of dollars in TV revenue while imposing violations on players for the most ticky-tack of "infractions", so I gotta believe that somebody in the front office is crafty enough to come up with something.
- Second, institute a four-official crew for all pre-season non-conference games involving one Power Five team with immediate effect, starting in the fall of 2017. For games where both teams are from Power Five conferences, a four-official crew would be optional. Choose one non-Power Five conference to implement a four-official crew during the 2017-2018 regular season. Pending proof of sufficient benefit, institute four-official crews for all pre-season non-conference games in the 2018-2019 season, as well as all conference tournaments and the NCAA tourney. In this case, I'd expect that the NCAA would be the main kvetching party, due to the additional cost. Would the teams and conferences also be bitching, particularly since they're the ones paying for the crews during the regular season? Well, of course they would, because leagues like the Big Ten, SEC, and Pac-12 currently make scads and scads and scads of money from multiple sources (particularly their TV networks), and might only be able to make scads and scads of money if each school spent another $50,000 a year on officials--which is literally all it would be per team if every conference mandated the use of four-man crews for every game throughout the year.
- Third, explore an expanded video replay system where an empowered replay official could buzz the on-court officials to institute a review at any stoppage or non-advantageous moment in the game. I have no idea what such an implementation would look like, and it certainly wouldn't be cut and dried--we've had instant replay in the NFL for nearly two decades, and still nobody knows what the hell constitutes a catch--but I absolutely know that just about anything would be an improvement over the current system. With 121 seconds left in regulation, they can't look at a replay to get the call right, but two seconds later they can? Total horseshit.
- Fourth, any player who is the victim of a "neck-jerk" foul must immediately go to the bench to be put through the concussion protocol by an independent physician provided at the NCAA's expense. In the case of a shooting foul, the victim's coach may choose his shooter from a player on the bench (but may not choose a player already on the floor at the time of the foul). The victim may not re-enter the game until passing the concussion protocol and until a minimum of 60 seconds of game clock time has passed.
To sum up, I'm advocating that each Division I basketball school annually spend no more than $150,000--the cost of a relatively junior football assistant coach at a Power Five school, or a mid-level football coach at a Group of Five school--in the interest of putting out an even better product. $50,000 would cover the cost of a fourth official over an entire basketball season, while the additional $100,000 a year should more than cover the cost of implementing a high quality video replay system. My hunch is that these two items combined with better-rested officials would lead to a whole lot less controversy than we've seen in the first three days of the tourney.
Ridiculous? No, not really, now that I think about it.