Opinion: When NBA players are critical of how games are officiated, it comes with a price. And it’s not right
Fining players for criticizing NBA officials is censorship that only creates more problems
Jordan Clarkson did a really good job toeing a difficult line Saturday night.
Earlier in the evening, during the Utah Jazz’s loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, when Clarkson was on his way up to dunk the ball, he was hit by Jabari Walker and then flattened on his way back down to earth by Jusuf Nurkic. Pinned under Nurkic he hit the court and stared at the game officials in disbelief.
Despite the contact, no foul was called and the game continued on.
When play finally stopped, Jazz coach Will Hardy screamed at the officials and was given the first technical foul of his NBA head coaching career.
Following the game, when asked about the no-call, Clarkson was careful and deliberate with what he chose to say. He wove together words of understanding, frustration, confusion and threw in some well-timed compliments. He had to. Because he knew if he actually answered the questions posed to him with honesty, if he said how he really felt, if he didn’t toe the line, the NBA would hit him with a fine for publicly criticizing the officials.
This is not a new practice, but it is one that not only unfairly censors players, but also places referees on a strange and unreachable pedestal.
On the play in question, Clarkson had landed on his arm. In the postgame interview room at Vivint Arena, Clarkson said that the injury was not anything serious.
“Just a little swollen elbow,” he said, before grinning sarcastically and continuing on. “I guess it’s just part of the game, right?”
The room of reporters laughed, understanding the subtext — getting slammed to the ground and pinned under another player, suffering a swollen extremity along the way, with no help or safeguards from the officiating crew, is apparently just a part of the game.
Asked about the play, Clarkson continued to brilliantly say a lot, without saying anything that would get him in trouble with the league office.
“It’s the regular season,” Clarkson said. “Everybody’s learning, everybody’s getting to it. But at the same time you get upset because we’re out here working, they don’t gotta deal with all the outside stuff. They don’t get fined. Nothing happens to them when they miss calls and it changes the situations of the game.
“But like I said we all in this game together. We come here and we come to work just like they come to work. They lace up their shoes and make mistakes. I make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes down the line. But at some point they’ve gotta be held accountable. I get held accountable for missed shots, turnovers, late-game situations.”
Clarkson continued by saying that he talked to the refs after the game and told them that they missed some stuff and might benefit from watching the game tape, just as he will have to in order to improve. He said that he doesn’t hold any grudges or hatred for any of the NBA officials. But he did note the feeling of there being a double standard.
“They’re supposed to protect the players, protect us while we’re on the floor, in between the lines,” he said. “So it is a little frustrating but I have nothing against nobody and it’s all love. … But they’ve tightened up on everything, period — what you say, you can’t react to calls, guys can’t even come on the court to celebrate no more. We get fined. Like even if I say something up here, with my language, my wordplay that I’m giving right now, if that’s out of line it’s gonna cost me.”
Clarkson is right on most of his criticisms. NBA officials are graded by a league system and then they are trained and given assignments based on their grades. Those who have the best are awarded with the bonus of working during the playoffs and then the NBA Finals. That’s much like NBA players. The ones who make the most mistakes are usually not the ones that reach the postseason. But the players and officials are not equals when it comes to criticism or accountability.
On Nov. 4, NBA official Tony Brothers used multiple expletives in remarks toward the Dallas Mavericks’ Spencer Dinwiddie. Brothers was suspended for one game, but not without pay. If the roles were reversed, not only would Dinwiddie have been hit with a technical foul (which comes with a fine) but he would have been fined by the league for using abusive language toward an official.
Players can criticize one another all they want. A player can say that an opposing player isn’t good at their job, that they’re phony, that they’re not worthy of their status, or any number of things and it will make headlines, but won’t even be looked at by the league for any disciplinary reasons.
But if a player publicly criticizes the almighty officials, they are fined.
Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid was hit with a fine for sarcastically criticizing officials during last season’s playoffs.
“I’m going to take my own advice and not complain about fouls,” Embiid said. “They did a great job. I admire the job that they did today. To me, it felt like they had one job coming in here tonight. And they got it done. Congrats to them, tonight.”
Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert were both fined after criticizing officials in 2021.
“It’s getting (expletive) ridiculous,” Mitchell said.
It wasn’t even a targeted statement, but Mitchell was fined.
In 2018, NBA commissioner Adam Silver admitted that fining players was “more symbolic than anything else when you have players as wealthy as they are.” The point he was making was the fines were not working as a deterrent, which means that the league still believes that it needs to keep players from criticizing the officials. But there is never a reason given for why it’s so bad to criticize the official, when everyone else around the NBA is ripe for criticism.
The practice of fining players for criticizing officials censors players and forces them into a box where officials are on the outside and above any criticism. It’s archaic, it’s unnecessary, and the hierarchy that it clearly creates is jarring.
Players are also required by the league to meet with reporters, and they are blasted by fans and pundits if they are dishonest in their interviews. If they shirk those responsibilities they are fined. But if they say how they really feel about the job that an official did after a game, they are also fined.
Clarkson was luckily not fined for his comments following the loss to Portland. But, Clarkson was fined.
Despite it being like a night in any other NBA arena, where T-shirt guns sling free swag into the crowd, where mascots hurl things at spectators or dump popcorn on people’s heads, Clarkson was fined for flinging his headband into the stands at the end of the game.
A fan went home with a game-worn Jordan Clarkson headband and Clarkson paid $15,000 for it.