Once upon a time, I was a referee. And an umpire. It was part of my late-teens realization that when it came to sports, my path to being involved wasn't going to happen as an athlete ... as I was a poor one.
So, at age 16, I started coaching, first as a youth-league volunteer. Then I became more serious about writing. And then I began earning a semi-living as an official working in football, baseball, softball, volleyball, basketball.
One of the first lessons I was taught by two older mentors who'd happened to umpire professionally in the minor leagues: Don't have "rabbit ears.''
And this is my biggest takeaway from the NBA referee union's campaign against Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban -- who of course, has long campaigned against any incompetence on the part of the NBA referees. The refs are violating one of the most important tenets of officiating in sports: Don't have "rabbit ears.'' (It's come to my attention a younger generation is unfamiliar with the term. It simply means, "Don't listen and don't respond to the "Kill The Ump!'' shouts from the stands. Focus on your job.'')
The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski is on the story as the union attempts to paint Cuban as one who attempts to bully officials. (Here are the documents themselves.) If you've ever attended a Mavs game, you are aware of Tony Cubes' very public use of his floor-seat position to hoot at the refs, to give them the business, to yell that there are wrong.
The good officials either ignore him or wink at him.
The bad officials, I fear, complain to their union.
Or, maybe worse: The officials themselves don't have a real issue here. Instead, it's the refs union, trying to politicize a non-issue in order to put itself on the map, that is driving this. And if you are the refs union, what better foe to attempt to draw into battle -- if it's attention you seek -- than the high-profile Cuban.
"If I'm trying to influence the refs to benefit the Mavs,'' Cuban tells me, reflecting with gallows humor on Dallas' 12-27 record, "I must not be very good at it.''
Cuban, since coming into the NBA almost two decades ago, has a long history of trying to improve NBA officiating from the inside, without in-game yelling and gesturing. There have indeed been important changes to the way the league runs this arm of its business a it's moved away from the "Couldn't-Manage-A-Dairy-Queen'' overseeing of the past.
But he is also not shy about being less subtle (especially when behind-the-scenes isn't getting his cause traction). The performance reports on individual refs is something he is acutely aware of. This shouldn't embarrass the refs; the fact that the public has access to their strengths and weaknesses should cause them to improve the former and lessen the latter.
"Bottom line,'' he says. "We just need to keep working at (getting better)."
The issue isn't really Cuban. The issue is the refs union's level of discomfort with transparency reports. They are attacking the policy by attacking its most high-profile advocate, Cuban.
But I wonder what the ultimate goal is. Quiet Cuban? Good luck. Hide the reports on refs? No chance. Improve the game by being receptive to ways officiating can be made better?
"To suggest I have influence is to suggest that the NBA officials can be influenced," Cuban told The Vertical. "If an official can be influenced by pressure from anyone, they should not be in the NBA. I don't believe they can be influenced."
That's what the refs union should be opening its ears to. Responding angrily to criticism isn't part of the fix. It's only symptomatic of a ref's deformity ... rabbit ears.