It’s perhaps the most common phrase directed toward game officials as the clock winds down or the final out approaches in virtually any sporting event — “let the players decide the game.”
Typically that’s a suggestion that the officials should refrain from blowing the whistle and let the action take care of itself.
I’m here to say that in Maine high school basketball, at least, such a trend has had a negative impact on the game because for one thing, “letting the players decide the game” is not necessarily letting all the players decide the game, only those who benefit from the lack of a particular call when the rules suggest a violation or foul has occurred.
The task of wrapping up the 2011-12 season, including articles involving the recent retirements from the coaching ranks of Bob Brown of Cheverus of Portland and Jim Bessey of Mt. Blue, has led to considerable reminiscing about the good old days when it took a team 75 points to win a game rather than the current, not-so-infrequent scenario in which both teams on the court barely top that total collectively.
And perhaps the most common lament I’ve heard in various conversations about the state of the game is how much more physical it is today than a generation ago.
Certainly some of that has to do with today’s players being physically stronger, the result of more frequent and effective strength training.
But certainly some of the increased physicality is the result of how the game is controlled and, as a result, how it is coached.
A typical coach will get his players to do what he thinks they can get away with given how a game is officiated. More than one coach has told me how he encourages his defensive players to bump opponents routinely as they attempt to make their way from one side of the lane to the other as an additional means of disrupting the opposing offense.
In some games that happens on virtually every possession, but rarely is the “incidental” bump called a foul and so its purpose is served as even the best drawn-out play is ever-so-briefly disrupted.
Call it a matter of interpretation.
Ask some people who scour the rulebook, and they’ll say there is no mention of calling the game based on whether there is an advantage or disadvantage gleaned from a given situation.
Ask others equally scholarly in the language of basketball rules, and they’ll point to the phrase “incidental contact” as license to apply a more subjective interpretation of the rules.
And as those interpretations have gotten more and more subjective over the years, the defense seemingly has been the beneficiary at the expense of the offense, so not all the players are deciding the games as much as everyone would hope.
Perhaps a more literal application of the rules will free offensive players up to play more offense rather than first having to fend off “incidental” defensive contact.
And if the rules are applied more merely as they are written instead of as they are interpreted by officials, teams will have to adjust to the way the game is called or pay the penalty — and coaches will have to see that their teams adjust, or in many communities their job security may soon be at stake.
Now that wouldn’t resolve all of the issues behind lower-scoring games — such as lack of individual shooting practice and a 3-point arc that encourages more lower-percentage, longer-range shots — but it might serve as another tool to use in restoring the game to a more free-flowing experience than the slugfests they have become.