Onus of pro basketball: Fans think it's rigged


June 09, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

Professional basketball has become wildly popular in recen years. The TV ratings of playoff games are soaring, the league has expanded all over the country and the top players are known as well as or better than those in other sports.

Which is remarkable if you consider that pro basketball has become this popular despite a serious public relations problem that other team sports don't share.

Put simply, the problem is this: Many fans, maybe a majority, think the games are rigged.

Not only fans. But based on what they say, many of the broadcast commentators, sportswriters and even the players and coaches seem to think so, too.

And they are surprisingly open about it.

You hear commentators, coaches, or players talk about how the referees are calling fouls that benefit the home team. Or that they will fail to call fouls on a star player while blowing the whistle on a lesser player for the same infraction.

If that is happening -- and I assume that the commentators, coaches and players know what they're talking about -- this could be taken to mean that the referees are manipulating the outcome of the game.

The average fan keeps hearing the complaints. And sometimes the fan sees what appears to be evidence with his own eyes. So the fan takes the rigging theory one step further.

It goes like this: The TV network wants as many playoff games as it can get because it generates big revenue. A four-game sweep doesn't make as much money as a six- or seven-game nail-biter.

So, the thought goes, the league has the referees make calls that favor one team or the other to stretch the playoffs.

That's the real reason teams have a so-called "home court advantage" -- not because the players love home cooking and the local fans, but because the refs are providing helpful whistle-toots.

I'm not saying that this scenario is reality, but most fans I've talked with believe some or all of it. And you can't blame them. Not after they hear a radio commentator, such as the one who broadcasts the Bull games on local radio, angrily declare that one foul was so blatantly and outrageously wrong that it could compromise "the integrity of the league."

There is no other major sport about which such things are said.

You don't hear anyone say that baseball umpires are going to give the home team an edge by calling more strikes and fewer balls on the visiting team. Or that they will treat a veteran star pitcher kindlier than a rookie. Or that they will give the benefit of the doubt to the home team on all close calls on the bases.

If anything like that happened in baseball, or was even suspected, it would be a national scandal and Congress would probably hold hearings.

Umpires make mistakes. So the players and manager squawk and maybe get thrown out of a game. But it is never suggested that the ump was doing it to make the home team happy or to prolong the playoffs.

Nor do you hear that kind of talk in pro football. The most frequent beef in that sport is by offensive linemen who are caught holding an opponent.

But, once again, nobody suggests that it's anything more than a referee's poor judgment.

This means pro basketball has a potentially serious problem. If this goes on, season after season, a lot of fans might decide that it is a waste of time watching something they suspect is not on the legit. When that happens? Well, pro wrestling was once a big network show.

That would be unfortunate because pro basketball is the fastest-paced, highest-scoring and most-athletic of team sports. For many fans, especially those of us in Chicago, it is the most exciting of games.

So as a non-expert average fan, I have some advice for the people who run the NBA.

Maybe it is only perception. Maybe the refs are not biased one way or the other. Maybe they just call it as they see it and we are being swayed by the gripes of the commentators, coaches and players.

And by what we see with our own eyes.

Nevertheless, something ought to be changed. The rules of the game should be simplified, clarified and evenly enforced.

A whistle shouldn't blow when one player touches his pinkie finger against another player's pinkie finger. Especially when, a minute later, the whistle doesn't blow when one seven-foot hulk flings another seven-foot hulk halfway toward the mezzanine.

There shouldn't be one game in which the players are allowed to engage in something resembling a combination of football and a tavern brawl, followed by another game in which they are required to conduct themselves as if they are at Miss Sniffstone's formal dancing school.

Michael Jordan won't be there forever to draw the fans and the ratings. Especially if lesser mortals are allowed to use his head as a bongo drum while the refs gaze into space.

So the people running the NBA should decide who the stars of the game really are. One hint: They don't have whistles in their mouths.

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