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How The NBA's Communication Problem Could Affect Playoffs


The NBA has a communication problem. Players are mad at the refs. The fans are mad at the refs. The refs are mad at seemingly everyone else. It's gotten so bad referees mounted a PR campaign, reaching out to talk with fans after games.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Were you at the game tonight?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I did. I did. I was there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're trying to do a survey on the officiating...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Of the NBA. You know, because we're trying to crack down on them - get better...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...You know - everything. Yeah.

CORNISH: To explain more about what's going on and whether it might affect the playoffs which start tomorrow, we turn to Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN. Welcome to the program.

KEVIN ARNOVITZ: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So how'd all this get started?

ARNOVITZ: Well, there are these competing theories, as there always are. Some say that there has been a spate of retirements of the league's most respected venerable referees, and in their place have come some younger referees that don't have the relationships with the players. They know what makes these players tick. I mean, I think one of the other theories is players - there's far more at stake. It's a more emotional business. You're talking about millions and millions and millions of dollars. And, you know, sports is where we go to be irrational.

But I have a different theory, which is I think in many ways, the issue mirrors the larger conversation we're having about the deterioration of civil discourse in every other walk of life. Like, we now live in a world where a low-grade conflict between referee and player that would have gone unnoticed a few years ago now gets published and posted on Twitter.

And players will send these clips to other players on other teams they're friendly with and say, did you see what happened in Denver or Houston tonight? And I think very much the story of referee and players is the story of all of us right now in discourse.

CORNISH: Now, I understand that they actually maybe sat down to talk about this. Is there any sign of an agreement? And what would even be in it?

ARNOVITZ: Yeah. I mean, there was a brief meeting at the All-Star Weekend. But actually, the heads of sort of the referees' operations in the league just got back - finished on Monday a 30-team tour around the league, having conversations with the players and saying, look; what can we do to communicate better?

Because the interesting thing is when you talk to players, they'll tell you the performance of the referees in making correct calls and incorrect calls is no worse than they feel it's been in previous years. What they feel like is that when the whistle blows, there used to be room for a casual conversation, wanting clarification, and now those particular discussions are escalating into some - you know, kind of some bad blood.

CORNISH: Superstars are getting tossed out of games, which used to be rare. Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors has been ejected five times just this year, LeBron James ejected for the first time in his 15-year career. Heading into the playoffs, could this be an issue?

ARNOVITZ: I mean, I think it absolutely could be an issue. In fact, we saw in 2016 Draymond Green was ejected from a game - suspended for a game, and ultimately it might have swung the fate of the series. I think everybody is on heightened alert right now. On one hand, I would like to believe - the optimist in me - that because everybody knows this is an issue, that players will kind of recognize that line and not cross it.

CORNISH: Speaking of the playoffs, after three years of basically Golden State versus Cleveland in the finals, both teams have been struggling. So looking forward into the playoffs, what are you watching for?

ARNOVITZ: I'm watching the Houston Rockets, who had a phenomenal year behind their star, James Harden, and Chris Paul, who came over from the Los Angeles Clippers. They can score the ball at will, and they are the favorites to take the title over Golden State, who's trying to kind of bide their time while Steph Curry comes back from injury. He's injured his MCL and probably won't be ready until the second round. The east is interesting. LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers have not had a successful season. They're looking up at three other teams, including the Toronto Raptors, who in Eastern Conference is number 1C and could give Cleveland, Philadelphia, Boston and the rest of the east a tough time.

CORNISH: Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN, thanks so much.

ARNOVITZ: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF KALI UCHIS SONG, "RIDIN ROUND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.