First of all, before anything else, Auburn fans have a right to be angry and to feel that the officials in the Final Four national semifinal game against Virginia robbed their team of victory.
By Matt Zemek
This is not because of the foul call on Samir Doughty, but because of the clear missed double-dribble call against Virginia’s Ty Jerome moments earlier. That missed call was a clear mistake, and if that mistake hadn’t been made, we’re not even talking about a foul call, because Auburn would have had the ball and won the game.
That said, one can still make the argument that fouls are not called consistently in college basketball or, for that matter, any level of basketball. “What is a foul?” is one of the most timeless questions in sports. It is asked every season, and seems to change not just every season, but from one game to the next.
Even within one game, “What is a foul?” changes. This is why one can watch 39 minutes of Auburn-Virginia — a game in which the referees let the players play (they certainly did) — and then arrive at a play with slight to modest contact on Kyle Guy, and wonder why the foul was called.
It isn’t easy to explain. It SHOULD be easy to explain, but it isn’t.
Let’s say you and I watched a game from a front-row seat. (I don’t have a lot of money, so let’s make it a high school game or a Division II game, or an NBA G League game.) A defensive player bumps a cutter away from the ball and does not get whistled for a foul. Okay, you say, now a standard has been set. You see that play not called a foul for the next 10-15 minutes, but then in the final few minutes of a game, it is called a foul.
Does that foul call make all the non-calls worse, or is the foul call itself the mistake? Fans either get upset at the lack of consistency, or at the fact that the standards changed late in the game when more was riding on the call, or at the notion that a tougher standard of officiating should have applied to all the earlier calls… or all of the above.
There is no good answer to that kind of situation. Either the refs were inconsistent, or they changed late in the game, or they were more lax in their application of the rule book in the earlier portions of the game. Whatever the answer is, it’s a problem. Fans are right to identify a problem here, and accordingly, they are right to feel frustrated and — moreover — right to feel that Auburn was robbed, even if the actual foul call on Samir Doughty might have been a faithful application of the rule book.
Where, Auburn fans would reasonably reply, was the faithful application of the rule book on various crash-bang sequences earlier in this game? Why didn’t Auburn get to the foul line a lot more often in the first 39 minutes?
Part of the difficulty in answering the question, “What is a foul?”, comes from a realization that shooting fouls and common fouls are officiated differently. Shooting fouls involve very slight contact. The idea that a shot is altered by a slight bit of contact — which therefore means small amounts of contact can be hugely influential on shots and therefore need to be enforced — is perfectly fine. However, how and when does this carry over to non-shooting fouls?
Does this mean that in banging in the paint for rebounds, or bumping cutters, or when hand-checking a ball-handler on the perimeter, everything should be called as well? This becomes very murky very quickly.
The uncomfortable reality involving basketball as it relates to officiating is that the sport was invented by Dr. James Naismith as a non-contact sport. Basketball was meant to be a game of finesse and movement. In the course of the game’s evolution, basketball has become a contact sport, a highly physical and contentious theater of activity. This is a Genie which is hard to put back in the bottle, a reality which is hard to reverse, let alone eliminate.
If we were to live in a world where the Samir Doughty foul on Kyle Guy would not elicit outrage, we would need to create a world in which touch fouls were regularly called, and — more importantly — in which a standard of contact was so consistently applied across teams, conferences, and tournaments, that fans clearly identified such consistency in action.
We don’t have that consistency. We don’t see relentless fidelity to the same standard of contact in various called (or uncalled) fouls.
This leads to outcries, which — as stated above — are understandable and legitimate.
Part of the frustration expressed by Auburn fans comes from an awareness — it is entirely accurate — that the culture of college basketball officiating shows no real signs of moving closer to this kind of consistency. If people could notice it, they would not be this upset. Alas, they can’t see it, because it isn’t there.
Consistency in officiating is as elusive as ever. People in power (administrators and supervisors and rules experts) can talk all they want about consistency, but until they more clearly show they are capable of delivering it, we are going to have more of these emotional reactions to situations such as the Auburn-Virginia endgame on Saturday.