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No justice for Joey

NBA heavy-handed in disciplining longtime referee

Posted: Wednesday April 18, 2007 11:27AM; Updated: Wednesday April 18, 2007 11:27AM
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Veteran referee Joey Crawford, shown here with Tony Parker, may have officated his last game in the NBA.
Veteran referee Joey Crawford, shown here with Tony Parker, may have officated his last game in the NBA.

Did NBA referee Joey Crawford take a run at Tim Duncan and body-slam him into the boards, NHL-style? Did he steal a trick from the WWE and wallop Duncan with a folding chair? Did he pull a Pac-Man Jones and compile a rap sheet longer than the Harry Potter series? Those are the sorts of acts that should get someone banned for the rest of a season, but unless we all missed something, all Crawford did was toss Duncan out of a game unnecessarily.

That makes Crawford an official on a power trip, a club that includes many, many other members, and not just in the NBA. For his lapse in judgment, Crawford was suspended for the rest of the season, including the playoffs, a punishment that far exceeds the seriousness of the crime.

This isn't to say that Crawford was blameless -- far from it. He was, as commissioner David Stern pointed out in his statement announcing the suspension, highly unprofessional in his handling of the Duncan dispute. Handing Duncan a second technical foul, and with it an automatic ejection, for merely laughing in amazement at one of Crawford's calls during the Spurs-Mavericks game on Sunday, was an egregious abuse of power. If, as Duncan claims, Crawford challenged him to a fight, a suspension is definitely in order, although when Crawford allegedly said "Do you want to fight?" he almost certainly meant it in a figurative sense, as in, "Do you want to challenge my authority?"

Either way, Crawford lost his cool, acted inappropriately and deserved to be called on the carpet by Stern. As a 29-year veteran and the second-longest-tenured ref in the league, however, he did not deserve to have the hammer dropped on him. Banning him from the first round of the playoffs and keeping him from working any games involving the Spurs during the postseason would have been about right. That probably would have been enough to embarrass Crawford into reining in his temper during the playoffs, and it wouldn't have cost the league one of its top referees for the entire postseason -- because that's what Crawford is when he's not handing out T's like after-dinner mints.

It is true that Stern had warned Crawford about his short fuse before, after a 2003 playoff game between, once again, the Spurs and Mavs. Crawford, amazingly, called four technicals in the first 10:11 of that game, tossing then-Dallas coach Don Nelson and Mavs assistant Del Harris. The league understandably didn't want a replay of that kind of overreaction during this postseason -- it's just surprising that Stern would overreact himself in an effort to avoid it.

Think about it. Would any player have received such a drastic penalty for similar behavior? Would Duncan have been suspended for the postseason if he had gone ballistic on a referee? Or forget Duncan, one of the league's golden boys. Even noted rebel Rasheed Wallace, with a history of offenses that makes Crawford look like an angel, wouldn't have been banished for the entire postseason merely for acting out.

Crawford's punishment also represents a mixed message from Stern, who directed the referees at the start of the season not to put up with the whining and histrionics over calls that players tend to display. The league wanted a referee crackdown, and now one of its longest-tenured refs has been humiliated for cracking down too hard. What happens now? Will refs be a bit gun-shy about calling technicals for fear that Stern won't approve of their judgment? And what of the players? Now that they've seen Crawford's drastic punishment, will they feel more free to challenge other officials' authority?

It may be that the league simply felt that Crawford had become too much of a hothead and wanted him gone. If so, that wish may come true, since it wouldn't be surprising if he decides not to return next season after having the league cut him off at the knees. But the NBA may find itself dealing with the unpleasant repercussions of this decision in the future, whether Crawford is part of it or not.