The eye test is crucial to National Basketball Association referees. In fact, it’s the single biggest determinant of the decisions they make as they survey the non-stop action on the court. On the flipside, it also happens to be the biggest weapon longtime habitues of the sport wield against them. Data from the front office strongly indicate that they get calls right an overwhelming majority of the time. Unfortunately, they don’t get pats on the back for doing their jobs well. Rather, they get pilloried on the rare instances that they wind up swallowing their whistles for reasons they may deem justifiable at the given instance, but which not-quite-impartial quarters believe to be flat-out wrong.

Because so much occurs during a contest, referees exercise their better judgment in support of the bigger picture. Their purpose isn’t to call fouls or violations to a point where the proceedings all but come to a screeching halt. Instead, they use their unique skill sets and wealth of experience to weigh whether undue advantage was caused by a particular offense — in which case they feel they have no choice but to step in. Otherwise, they keep the ball live and let the play continue. Occasionally, though, the aforesaid eye test will come into play and cast them in a bad light.

Considering how much the game itself has evolved at the highest level, it’s no surprise that referees have become hard-pressed to keep up. For practical and understandable reasons, they’re compelled to exercise their better judgment when it comes to citing infractions. Else, they would be blowing their whistles at just about every turn given the moves all 10 players on the floor make to push the envelope in an effort to claim an advantage. Even highly partisan fans understand their dilemma, and are thus sympathetic to their positioning between a rock and a hard place.

To be sure, there have been cases in which apparent violations have been let go, and to a point where they’re no longer deemed as such. Traveling, for example, has been effectively institutionalized. At one time, it was simply any second step after the pickup of a dribble. It then evolved to “one and a half steps” after a gather — not coincidentally still the rule. The practice these days, however, is much different from theory ; with such “innovations” as the Euro step, the stepback, and the side stepback, what’s legal has been stretched to levels of incredulity.

Last February, for instance, a match between the Wizards and the Pistons saw Bradley Beal take six — yes, six — steps en route to the basket before making a pass. There was no whistle, to the consternation of just about everybody in Little Caesars Arena. The ensuing discussion broke the Internet and had the referees association, in mind-numbingly defending the absence of a call, get into a public spat with the league, and particularly Monty McCutchen, formerly from among its ranks and current vice-president of referee development and training. Meanwhile, the All-Star himself admitted what he got away with; “look clean to me,” he noted in a tweet laced with laugh emojis.

Little wonder, then, that James Harden, last year’s Most Valuable Player and the biggest beneficiary of the hazy implementation of the traveling rule, has seen fit to, in his words, “come up with something more creative, and it’s gonna look like a travel, but it’s not.” Clever, and in more ways than one. This early, he’s already conditioning all and sundry to accept a legal a move that the eye test will determine to be a traveling violation even in real time. It’s anybody’s guess whether he manages to do so without the game arbiters calling it for what it is — but if he does, look out.


Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.