The NBA coach's challenge will make basketball slower and duller

Video reviews turn what should be dynamic and ephemeral entertainment into a moral crusade to get absolutely everything right.
Image: Scott Foster, Chris Paul
The Houston Rockets' Chris Paul speaks with a referee during Game 2 of a second-round playoff game against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, Calif., on April 30.Jeff Chiu / AP file
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By Corbin Smith

People warned about it for years, and now the nightmare seems to finally be upon us: NBA coaches will be equipped with a challenge to dispute calls by referees starting next season.

Basketball (like football, baseball and hockey) has until now only allowed a quick video review of referees’ decisions on some of the more objective violations, such as out of bounds and goal-tending. But the introduction of a coach's challenge, approved by the NBA's board of governors on Tuesday, will also allow the possibility of overturning more subjective transgressions, like touch fouls and block or charge calls. Coaches will get one challenge a game, which they will signal after calling a timeout on the floor.

All this intense neurosis about achieving so-called flawless officiating reflects the kind of perfection-at-any-cost mindset that clutters our lives.

Basketball isn’t supposed to be like this. Basketball is supposed to be stylish, free flowing, fun. You don’t turn on a basketball game in the hopes of seeing a perfectly metered contest that determines whose intellectual and physical will was more up to the task — you tune in to watch sick passes, thunderous dunks, mind-melting three-pointers.

Worse than the immeasurable lameness of the challenge flags themselves is their ultimate end: They slow down the game in service of eliminating ambiguity from sports, reframing what should be dynamic and ephemeral entertainment into a moral crusade to get Absolutely Everything Right when determining who the greatest players and teams are. The powerful aesthetic experience of the game is made subservient to minute matters of interpretation about the application of the rules.

Challenge flags, video replay, all this intense neurosis about achieving so-called flawless officiating, reflect the kind of perfection-at-any-cost mindset that clutters our lives and makes us miserable. It's solutioneering at its worst, solving a problem that is tiny at an exorbitantly irritating cost.

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The solution mindset, the never-ending hunt to remove every problem that manifests in front of us, is powerful in an age when games are monitored by a bevy of cameras set up at different angles, most viewers are watching on a television screen that puts each detail in sharp relief and the networks can endlessly loop slow-mo and zoomed-in footage. If there’s a call that isn’t right, a flop, a slight mistake in determining who was the last player to touch the ball as it sailed out of bounds, commentators and armchair coaches are there to catch it. As the little mistakes pile up in your head, you just can’t seem to shake the inevitable thought: “All these cameras, all these angles, why can’t they just SOLVE THIS by sending the refs to the monitors!?”

But giving up that mindset — accepting that referees can't nail everything and letting go of the quest for absolute certainty — is a far more noble effort than trying to make sure everyone is satisfied with every call in a game that averages nearly 100 possessions per contest.

And for the people who follow sports to be entertained — the majority of fans (I hope) — this is by far the more fulfilling way to watch. But there is a subsection of people, most frequently football fans, for whom this ends up not being enough. Sports transmute from a fun thing to watch and think about and discuss with your pals into a grand moral drama, the ultimate determination of whose character will bring them to the Promised Land.

When sports take on this dimension, officiating goes from an-effort-to-make-sure-we’re-being-fair to a life-or-death enterprise, the kind of thing you absolutely NEED to police by commanding middle-aged men to hunch over monitors in front of tens of thousands or even millions of witnesses.

It’s no coincidence that watching football, of all the major sports, loses the least from the use of challenge flags and reviews of calls, thanks to its herky-jerky, stop-start pace. Football is a kind of mini-exercise in bureaucracy, with trees full of coaches, each bearing a specific title and function, laying down intricate plans for their players, who also have specific functions practiced to within an inch of their lives. Quarterbacks have little books they keep on their wrists with all the information raked in by their coaching staff, for God’s sake.

A challenge in football doesn’t detract from the purpose of the game; they are the purpose of the game — an act of regulation in the grand collision of two bureaucratic entities trying to eke out yards against the other. The whole enterprise is a grand hunt for perfection in a world where it can never really be had.

For most of its existence, basketball hasn't been subject to the same mass neurosis. It's a messier, more improvisational game, and the way it's officiated ought to reflect that. Arguing about blown calls after the fact is part of the experience in and of itself.

For instance: In a Houston Rockets-Golden State Warriors playoff game this year with Houston down three, Rockets guard James Harden got the ball beyond the three-point line, was covered by Warriors forward Draymond Green, rose up to shoot, either drew or created contact from Green, missed the shot and didn’t get the call.

Why would you watch sports, which are so profoundly affected by random chance, fate, the turn of a trifle, if you want to observe something where everything has to make complete sense?

The NBA determined, in one of the post-game reports on the officiating that occurred, that Green indeed did not foul Harden on the contest and, therefore, Harden wasn’t entitled to what would have been three free throws.

What did anyone gain from the league “being accountable”? What would be so horrible about Harden’s shot and Green’s contest existing in liminal space, where no one really knows if it was a foul or not? Why would you watch sports, which are so profoundly affected by random chance, fate, the turn of a trifle, if you want to observe something where everything has to make complete sense all the time?

The NBA, in its quest to bring perfect accountability to the game, to address the anxieties that television and cameras create, is gunking up the flow of a game whose beauty comes in part from the chaos created on its courts. The next time you see a blown call, please seek to accept the unknowability of what happens between the lines, and savor the present moment instead.