During a college basketball game, fans can usually develop a general understanding of how the referees are calling the game. Some refs may let a few aggressive plays slide, while others will call every ticky-tack foul they see.
In basketball there’s an undeniable, unique style to each game’s officiating strictness. For the first 39 minutes and 50 seconds of a game, that style usually remains fairly consistent. But for that last possession in a close-game scenario, it’s anyone’s guess as to just how much of the rulebook will actually be enforced.
It’s no secret that as a game comes down to the wire, referees interpret the rules a bit differently. Since most fans don’t want to see a referee determine a game’s outcome, officials are often more inclined to let some typical fouls slide.
The result is confusion for players and coaches on how to engage late game situations. Without certainty that the correct call will be made, offensive and defensive players alike are forced to play the final possession differently from the rest of the game.
This isn’t always a bad way to let a game end; after all most people would prefer seeing a buzzer beating shot decide a game rather than a couple of free throws. However, by picking and choosing when fouls should be called, referees create a gray area in basketball that can lead to disastrous results.
During the Kansas-Iowa State matchup in Ames on Feb. 25, the officiating crew’s interpretation of the rules in a late game situation led to one of the most controversial endings to a basketball game in recent memory. Down by two points as time was winding down, KU’s Elijah Johnson drove to the basket, running over Iowa State’s Georges Niang the process. The play appeared to be an obvious charging foul against the Jayhawks; however, the refs didn’t make a call.
Moments later, during a scramble for the loose ball, a foul was called against Niang, allowing Johnson to sink two free throws and send the game into overtime. Unable to overcome such a swing in momentum, Iowa State fell in OT by a score of 108-96.
The amount of contact made during Johnson’s final drive to the basket near the end of regulation would have likely resulted in some kind of foul being called during any other point in the game. But because the play occurred during possibly the game’s final possession, the referees held on to their whistles, only to suddenly change their officiating philosophy moments later by calling a petty loose ball foul. The Big 12 conference has released a statement admitting that officiating mistakes were made during the game.
Giving referees the freedom to adjust how strictly fouls will be called during late game situations only hurts the validity of college basketball. Without a consistent policy followed by all refs on how to officiate during the most critical part of a game, more mishaps like the Iowa State ordeal can occur.
Referees need to call fouls consistently for the entirety of the game, because a foul is a foul, no matter when it occurs. Players, coaches and officials should all understand that just because a game is coming down to a dramatic final possession, the rules will be enforced as if it was any other play.
The unspoken policy that fouls will be called differently during critical situations isn’t just seen in basketball; it’s also common in other sports. Football sees plenty of situations where a flag is less likely to be thrown. When was the last time you saw a holding penalty called during a last second hail mary heave?
To ensure the integrity of the sport remains, referees need to be willing to make the correct call in any situation of a game, even if it results in less dramatic buzzer beating finishes.
By allowing fouls to go uncalled during the most critical moments of a game, referees are influencing the outcome of a game more than they should. The rules shouldn’t change based on how much time is left on the clock. Otherwise it can lead to controversy and leave fans questioning who the rightful winner of a last-second finish should have been.
Donald Pepoon is a sophomore in marketing. Please send comments to email@example.com.