England men’s basketball and Worcester Wolves head coach, Paul James, brought refereeing to the fore recently with his comments regarding officiating in the BBL and specifically his feelings that a number of BBL officials were not up to their jobs.
James stated he felt officials were pandering to the superstars of the league and avoided making calls against them in order to keep them in the game. His comments didn’t seem to be the product of the sub-par season he was experiencing at BBL franchise Worcester, but more to do with an ongoing issue for the league and one that he experienced whilst at Guildford.
The response from the BBL was from BBL Chief Operating Officer, Andy Webb, who felt the comments weren’t consistent with the number of official complaints James had logged regarding poor refereeing performances throughout the 2010/11 season.
The BBL’s own Official supervisor of referees in the BBL, Will Jones, didn’t publicly respond to the Worcester Coach but James did acknowledge that he had had a number of phone conversations with Will throughout the season.
I felt that the best way to discover what the situation was in British basketball was to speak to Will Jones directly. I wanted to dis-spell the growing myth amongst fans that the officials in the league were under qualified and not up to the task of refereeing at the highest level.
Before speaking to Will, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Here’s a man who monitors refereeing in the BBL and is aware of the criticism levelled at those keeping the law on the hardwood. A man who’s working with resources which have been limited (and as Will points out, this is no different to the rest of the nation) due to the recession.
Leading up to speaking to him, there was a part of me that wondered whether Will would be an unfriendly, unapproachable man who would bat away my questions dismissively, due to the frequent questioning the officials in the BBL get. But what I found was surprising.
Will Jones was extremely gracious with his time, open to discussing every topic asked of him and all the while responding with an honesty that was refreshing. He was calm, collected and very professional in his answers.
He didn’t shy away from anything I asked and the only time he sounded frustrated was when talking about the financial restrictions placed upon the BBL due to the current financial climate and how it impacted on the officiating.
So what qualifies Will enough for him to be given the title of Official Supervisor of referees for the BBL?
Well, he was a referee in the BBL in it’s inception year and refereed his last game in the BBL at the end of the 2008/09 season, was an international referee until 2000, officiated for 20 years in FIBA’s top competitions, he was present and refereeing for the Euroleague’s birth year, he’s been an observer for the referees in the Euroleague, a FIBA Europe referee instructor, a national referee instructor in Wales and is currently in his third year in his current role for the BBL.
Which made him fully qualified to answer the following questions:
Keith: As officiating supervisor, how do you feel the relationship is between the officials and the coaches?
Will: Generally speaking they have good relationships. There’s obviously going to be disagreements but that’s part of life. You get it in football all the time and you get it in other sports too.
We try to get all the coaches and officials together at some stage in order to look at the way the game is called.
We have that set-up in place this season and we had it last season as well. We get together and try to work together and set agreements on the way the game is called. Not so much the rules but how we’re (officials) doing; how we’re doing with the post calls, how we’re doing with hand checking, is there too much contact?”
K: How is the attendance for those meetings?
W: “We’ve had two of those kind of meetings in Leicester where the guys at the Riders host it but not all the coaches can turn up due to them having tight schedules. Our aim is to get all the officials and all the coaches in one room in future to talk about these things”
K: What’s the process for a team if they feel they’ve had some bad calls go their way and they want to bring this to your attention?
W: “Every team has the opportunity to bring refereeing decisions to my attention. The process is that they get the footage, burn it onto a DVD and submit it to myself for review. But as of the turn of the year, I’ve had one submission.
It’s frustrating if coaches are saying that poor decisions are being made but then aren’t able to show me these decisions so I can review them. All referees want to improve on their mistakes.”
K: How frequently do the referees train in order to improve their games?
W: “At present, we have three sessions where everyone is together: a pre-season conference, one at the beginning of the season and one at mid-season. We’d love to have more sessions where we can go over rules and issues but the fixture list simply doesn’t allow it.”
K: A thought amongst some fans and some players is that the officials would benefit from having played the game at a high level before moving into officiating. It’d help them understand the way the game is played a little more. Have any steps been put in place to recruit former players and train them as referees?
W: “There are quite a few former players who have now become referees. At the moment in order to produce schemes that allow former players to become officials isn’t logistically possible. It would cost the BBL a lot of money.
With more funds there’s a lot of things we could do but without it we just can’t do it.”
K: How much would the level of officiating improve if the BBL had more funds available?
W: “As it stands, I believe that we have a very good group of officials. We really do need more funding though and with an increase in funding comes an improvement in all aspects of the game, not just in officiating. The BBL could have better players, better courts, everything. We’re not alone in that either, it’s true in Europe too. But in relation to officiating, yes, it would obviously help improve it.”
K: A key point for those watching games on a regular basis is the perceived lack of consistency from the officials. How do you tackle inconsistencies from the referees?
W: “Well, I’m aware of lots of things that happen within the course of a game, just as I’m aware of things that happen with the teams. We are professional. But just like the players, we’re only human.”
“The referees are only human. The fans only talk about the mistakes or inconsistencies that the referees make. They never talk about the inconsistencies and the standards of the players. They (the players) have exactly the same problems that we have. The fans never, ever look at the mistakes that their teams make, it’s always an officials fault.”
“We’re human, just like the players. There’s always going to be, and we’ve seen this in Europe as well, mistakes because referees are human. The idea is to find those mistakes and put them right. And of course the best thing we want is to increase resources and with increased resources, you’re able to put that right.”
K: What action do you take if a referee is making regular mistakes?
W: “The question is: Do you punish or educate?”
“And by that I mean, do we tell the officials to sit out 5 games for making a mistake (punishment) or do we show them where they can improve and help them to not make the same mistake again (educate)?”
“I prefer to educate. We have about 30 referees in the league and I can’t do without those referees. Whenever I’m at a game I listen to the referees pre-game, I watch the game and after the game I go back for the refereeing debrief. If people haven’t performed as they should be, we talk about why and we try to put that right.”
K: If a referee consistently makes mistakes, would they then be sent down a league to the EBL to aid with their learning?
W: “I haven’t ever had to say to a referee ‘you’re not refereeing any more’ because we try to put things right. But if people continue to make the same mistakes, we need to look deeper into why. If the same mistakes keep happening then, obviously, it could be time for change. Again, it’s educate rather than punish.”
K: There’s no easy way of asking this so I’ll ask it straight out: Do referees support BBL teams and if so, is that likely to affect their decision making?
W: “None of the referees in the BBL support teams in the BBL.”
K: Is that a direction that the BBL have given to the officials?
W: “That’s not a direction the BBL have given them. The referee’s a referee. I found that out for myself while I was an official…”
K: But you can understand the thinking that if a referee is from a certain area, say from Scotland, and they officiate the Glasgow Rocks, it’s plausible that the official may subconsciously give advantages to the Gla…
W: No definitely not. I don’t agree with that at all. It absolutely doesn’t matter where you live; Leicester, Tyneside, Chester, Mersey…no, not at all.
K: Do any of the officials have any grudges against any coaches in the BBL?
W: “Absolutely not. Absolutely…..no. I totally reject that any of the referees in the BBL have grudges against any coaches.”
“Players as well. No grudges whatsoever. I’m confident that that’s (referees not harbouring grudges) true.”
K: Do you think that basketball in England could overtake football in England and have officials speaking after the game to explain any game changing decisions?
W: “I think that’s available now. It depends though. Referees are not told not to discuss the decisions they’ve made but referees are told not to get caught up in an aggressive feature.“
“A coach can always speak to an official after a game provided they do it in the right way, in the right manner.”
K: What do you mean by ‘right way’?
W: “Speaking to them calmly and respectfully.”
“A coach can always speak to the officials during a game provided they do it in the right way and the right manner. The official will do their best to explain the call.”
“There are coaches in this league who can’t calm down after a decision has been made by the time all parties leave the arena. Some coaches simply state that they don’t want to discuss the matter at the time and say that they’ll speak to them the following day.”
“The last thing we want is another confrontation.”
K: So would you be happy for either a coach or media member to speak to the officials after the game regarding a decision that has impacted the outcome of the game?
W: “There’s absolutely no problem with explaining why a decision was made but we’d have to be very careful that if emotions are high that the discussion between the parties doesn’t start another incident.”
K: I’ve noticed the same officials refereeing the same teams this season, is this a deliberate choice?
W: “The referees travel to games within their geographical boundary. It’s impractical to get an official from Scotland to travel down to Plymouth and vice versa. So we ask for officials from similar areas to referee games within their area.”
K: And I guess that impacts on which officials work together...
W: “We get them, where possible, to share travel costs together so inevitably they will end up working together. But more importantly than the cost saving aspect, it allows the officials to gain a cohesion when working together and perform more effectively.”
K: Is there any truth to the rumour that the less experienced referees are assigned the teams at the lower end of the league, and on the flip-side of that, the more experienced officials get the table topping games?
W: “The referees you describe as ‘less experienced’ aren’t starting from scratch. They’re very good officials in the National League and they have potential. But as I say, teams will find they see more of the same officials when they’re at home because of the geographical boundaries.”
K: So you’re happy with the distribution of refereeing talent around the league…
W: “The referees work in teams of 3. That means that even if one of the three has less experience, they’re working with two experienced referees who are there for support and guidance if needs be.”
“I believe that every referee in the BBL is capable of officiating any game in the BBL. That’s what we’re trying to do.
We want 30 referees at a very good standard rather than 10 super referees and the rest not so.”
K: What do you think the chances are that BBL officials may represent the league and the country at the 2012 Olympics?
W: We would hope that FIBA would consider the referees from the BBL and that’s because we have a lot of referees in European competition which helps the standard in the BBL.
Having spoken to Will Jones at length, there is no doubt that he’s passionate about the standard of officiating in this country and determined to produce the best referees possible. In order to do that the officials will need to exhibit the same candour as their supervisor, as well as the BBL teams working in partnership with Will. And if all of that can be achieved, the refereeing in the BBL can be looked at under a different light in future. A positive light.
Keith Firmin is a freelance journalist who reports for the Leicester Riders and can be contacted at: Keify34@hotmail.com or followed on twitter @keiththejourno