Officials often make themselves part of the game, but shouldn't

Jun 2 2012 - 5:26pm

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Several years ago, while covering a Weber State-Montana men's basketball game in Missoula, Mont., I watched coach Joe Cravens receive a technical foul he didn't deserve.

He barked something innocuous -- no cursing at all -- to a referee standing on the other side of the floor. The rabbit-eared official T'd him up right then and there, no questions asked.

I bring this story up today only to point out anyone can make a mistake.

Refs, coaches, players -- shoot, even media hacks sitting at their keyboards -- can have a bad day.

Perhaps former coach and current ESPN/ABC basketball analyst Jeff Van Gundy was having one of those when I heard him being interviewed on a local radio station last week.

While discussing the officiating in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference championship series between the Celtics and Heat, Van Gundy was refreshingly open in his criticism of the refs.

In much the same way Cravens was T'd up years ago, officials in Game 1 had quick triggers with Celtics coach Doc Rivers and guard Ray Allen, neither of which deserved the techs they were assessed.

Appearing briefly on the Jazz's new flagship all-sports station, The Zone, Van Gundy said when it comes to being critical of officials, the broadcast side of the media usually takes the lead. He claimed the print side -- newspaper columnists, beat writers, etc. -- for some reason are hesitant to cry foul on those who call fouls.

He's wrong, of course. While it's not appropriate for reporters to be critical in their game coverage, the refs are fair game for columnists, who are paid to offer their opinions. I've read plenty of columnists who've pointed the finger of blame at refs, but I believe most objective observers understand it's rarely just the refs who are responsible for a team winning or losing a game.

Of course, that doesn't mean I'm going to let the refs -- in any sport -- completely off the hook. On the contrary, I'm growing tired of "activist" officials overstepping their bounds as arbiters of the games we love so dearly.

These men and women are there to objectively call things as they see them, not become part of the game. Where in the job description does it say you're supposed to have your own agenda?

Last week, former Ogden Raptor Russell Martin -- now the Yankees' No. 1 catcher -- had a well-publicized spat with MLB umpire Laz Diaz.

Early on during a New York victory over the Angels, Martin questioned Diaz's strike zone. Later, Diaz refused to allow Martin to throw new baseballs back to the pitcher, saying Martin had to earn the right to do so.

Earn the right?

Seriously?

Martin is a seven-year veteran. He frankly, doesn't need to earn anything. But even if he were a rookie, where does Diaz get off injecting his own bias into the game?

Normally, when a new ball is put in play, the umpire hands it to the catcher, who then throws it to the pitcher. Apparently, protocol says that catchers must ask permission first.

Who knew?

Martin told the Newark Star-Ledger he likes to keep his arm loose by throwing new balls back to the pitcher. Normally, it's not a problem but last week, after arguing with Diaz, the three-time All Star was told he wasn't allowed the right.

"He said that it was a privilege that I had to earn, for me to throw the ball back," Martin said after the game. "That's never happened to me before. I even told him, because there's guys on base, I like to keep my arm loose. Nope. 'I'm not letting you throw the ball back.' That's pretty strange, to me. That's a good story, huh?"

Yes, it is. And, sadly, it illustrates just how strange and even petty the relationship now is between officials and those who play -- and coach -- the game.

Jim Burton is the Standard-Examiner's sports columnist. He also covers the Utah Jazz and the NBA. He can be reached at 801-625-4265 or at jburton@standard.net. He tweets at http://twitter.com/jmb247

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