Wide Right: Refs factor too much in Pac-10 play

By Shane Dale
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, February 3, 2004

Of all the sports in which officiating can decide the outcome of a game, basketball is the most common victim.

We've all seen instances where the stars get the calls and the no-names don't. Kobe Bryant will go to the hoop untouched and end up with a 3-point play because a trailing defender had the nerve to breathe on him. Shaquille O'Neal will take five baby steps in the paint but won't get called for traveling - of course, traveling was abolished in the NBA in the late '80s.

But the problem isn't just in the pros. No Wildcat fan can forget the championship game of 2001, when thousands of impartial fans in Minneapolis got on the refs' case for acting as Duke's sixth (and seventh and eighth) man.

But if you think the men have it bad, it's really nothing compared to what the women have to tolerate.

NCAA women's basketball is saddled with third-rate officials - literally. These are the people who aren't fit for the NBA and aren't deemed worthy of calling a men's college game.

The women deserve better. But sadly, these rent-a-refs decide the outcome of more games than fans would like to think.

It has to be tough for officials to call a game in front of 15,000 partisan fans and remain neutral. But in women's college hoops, where attendance rarely exceeds 4,000, the fans seem to weigh even more on the minds of the officiating crew. It's an environment in which nearly every fan's obnoxious remark can be picked up by a ref's ear.

In the UA women's final exhibition game Nov. 13 in McKale Center, an opposing player was shooting a pair of free throws. After she made the first, a man in the front row sitting less than 10 feet away from an official screamed, "Number 34's stepping in the lane! Call the lane violation!"

On the second free throw, the official within earshot blew her whistle: "Lane, 34!" The lane violation was called, and the free throw was waved off.

Coincidence? Sure - if the call were made by one of the other officials.

The home-road bias of officials is more blatant the lower down the totem pole you find them. Consider the case of Arizona's standout sophomore center, Shawntinice Polk.

Polk has picked up 3.0 fouls per game at home this season, compared to 4.1 per game away from McKale. She has fouled out in just one home game - UA's season opener against NAU - but has fouled out five times on the road. She has been called for at least four fouls in just 2 of 10 home contests (20 percent) compared to 9 of 11 road games (81 percent).

Before Saturday night's game at ASU, UA head coach Joan Bonvicini said Polk doesn't play any differently on the road. That seems to be true. At ASU, the 6-foot-5 Polk didn't do anything she doesn't normally do in McKale - except stare down an official more than once.

There were three instances in which Polk was called for a foul, but the replay told a much different story: Polk, still as could be with hands straight up in the air, didn't touch the player she supposedly hacked.

Yep, Polkey fouled out Saturday night in Tempe. But then, so did two other Wildcats.

That's not to say the game was entirely one-sided. The art of the "make-up call" seemed to be utilized to its fullest, as an official would follow up a questionable call against a Wildcat with a questionable call on a Sun Devil. This happens in McKale, too - just the other way around.

A game that saw a resilient Arizona team cut a 23-point second half deficit to four was decided not by the players, but by an officiating crew that called 42 fouls that night. While ASU may have been the better team Saturday, the officials didn't allow the players to make that determination.

The good news for the Wildcats is that Polk hasn't picked up more than three fouls in any of Arizona's five Pac-10 home games - a stat that bodes well for the team heading into Thursday's home matchup with conference-leading Stanford.

Polk fouled out when the Cardinal hosted Arizona four weeks ago. A third-rate official's paycheck says she doesn't on Thursday.

After Sunday's Lakers-Raptors game, Shaquille O'Neal was furious with the refs.

"Get some people in there that understand the game and don't try to take over the game because people pay good money to see good athletes play," he said.

Sometimes, even Shaq gets it right.

Shane Dale is a political science senior. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu.