A look at the WNBA’s officiating woes.
It’s frustrating to feel like you have had one game taken away from you because of a referee’s actions, and it’s even worse when it happens twice in the span of nine days. That is the exact situation that the Washington Mystics found themselves in after controversial losses to the Seattle Storm and Los Angeles Sparks, and it is what led to Natasha Cloud’s tweet on August 7.
“Fine me. Our officials are trash.”
I stand on what I said yesterday. But let me elaborate in politically correct form: In my 7 year career this has been the most frustrating officiating by far. I am not perfect and I don’t expect perfection … BUT we (every team) are expected to play at an elite level every single night. I expect nothing less than that from our officials as well. We are all fighting for positioning and home court advantage; the stakes are extremely high, and emotions are as well. I am a competitor and at the end of the day my job is to win. I hope moving forward we learn, apply and get better. And I pray I don’t have to intentionally keep getting technicals cause that [stuff is] up to $400.
What Was the Call that Prompted Cloud’s Tweet?
When the Washington Mystics took on the Los Angeles Sparks on August 7, there were playoff implications for both teams. The Sparks were trying to work their way into the eighth seed, and the Mystics were trying to secure home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
After falling behind by 13 points, Washington had cut the deficit to three with four seconds left on the clock. They had one last chance to try to tie up the game and force overtime. Cloud raced up the floor and launched a deep three-pointer at the buzzer, and when Jordin Canada made contact with her arms, it looked like the Mystics had caught a break. The referee closest to the duo signaled that Cloud had indeed been fouled on the play.
However, after a brief review and discussion between the officials, the game was waived off because it was deemed that the contact had come after the buzzer. Cloud was furious and Mystics head coach Mike Thibault tried to plead his team’s case. Unfortunately for Washington, the referees had made up their minds.
For Thibault’s squad, this was a bad case of déjà vu. Just nine days before, an inadvertent whistle by an official with 26.3 seconds left in the game had halted Washington’s comeback against the Storm. The stoppage of play due to the inadvertent whistle meant that Seattle was able to call a timeout, and the momentum of the game shifted. Breanna Stewart made four free throws in the final 12 seconds to seal the win for the Storm, with the win moving them past Washington in the league standings.
The Mystics are not the only team that has been unhappy with the officiating in the WNBA this season. While WNBA fans are accustomed to Diana Taurasi collecting her fair share of technicals, what happened in the Mercury’s contest with the Chicago Sky on May 31 created a buzz throughout the basketball world.
As Taurasi created space before taking a floater in the lane during the second quarter of the game, Candace Parker reached out and slapped her arm. When a foul wasn’t called, Taurasi was livid. She began to yell at the official under the basket and within a handful of seconds, was assessed with two technical fouls and was ejected from the game.
Was it right for Taurasi to yell at the referees? Probably not. However, upon watching the play again, and seeing the blood on Taurasi’s arm after Parker made contact with her, it’s easy to see why Taurasi was so frustrated.
“Her whole arm is scratched up and bleeding,” Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard said after the game, “That was out of line … There’s blood dropping off her and it’s not a foul, and you expect her not to be upset. And she’s been hit multiple times before … I’ll let my players know they can draw blood, no foul will be called.”
Just this past week, Skylar Diggins-Smith also called out the inconsistency in how games have been officiated this season. “Watching these games like ‘I would’ve gotten a tech for that!’ Lol why is it only tech-worthy when I do it? Meanwhile … 1/2 of my techs have been rescinded by the league.”
It’s not uncommon for professional athletes to complain about the actions of referees, but what has been happening in the WNBA this season is certainly a cause for concern.
Is it Time to Incorporate Challenges into the WNBA?
“We need the challenge added to the W. ASAP.”
When Natasha Cloud posted this on July 30, she was referring to a rule that exists in the NBA, the NBA G-League, and in Athletes Unlimited Basketball.
The coach’s challenge has existed in the NBA since the 2019-2020 season, and it allows coaches to trigger an instant replay review of personal fouls, out-of-bounds violations, or called goaltending or basket interference violations. Each team is entitled to one challenge throughout the entire game (regardless of whether the challenge is successful.
The league that Cloud helped found, Athletes Unlimited Basketball (AU Basketball), also allows for challenges, so it’s not surprising that Cloud wants to see them implemented in the WNBA.
Given how close the WNBA’s ties are with the NBA and that the NBA G-League also has challenges, it does seem odd that it is the only league out of the three that does not allow coaches to challenge officials’ calls.
The challenge would not be an instant fix to the issues in the league, but it would give players and coaches the feeling that they are able to hold officials more accountable for what happens on the court. After all, referees are humans, and they are capable of making mistakes. All the players want is some recourse when those mistakes do happen.
Greater Issues Surrounding Officiating
If the quality of officiating is to improve on a wide scale, however, greater changes are needed. It’s no secret that scheduling has been an issue in the league this year, and officials are not immune to the effects of flight delays and back-to-back games. They are human, too, and no human could handle the travel hoops the league has teams jumping through without experiencing at least some negative effects.
One factor that is in their control though, is their attitude toward the game. For many referees, the WNBA is simply a stepping stone in their careers. It is a league that they need to serve their time in before they can fulfill their ultimate goal of being selected to officiate an NBA game.
The NBA Scouting Group is responsible for identifying and selecting candidates to fill vacant officiating positions in the NBA, WNBA, and NBA G-League. Based on information from the NBA Officials website, the NBA Scouting Group identifies top candidates who are trained at elite camps, and the top participants of these elite camps are hired to the NBA G-League. All G-League new hires participate in Summer League Training and/or an additional New Hire Orientation Session. G-League referees then attend Referee Preseason Meetings and are selected to work games in the league. If a referee is successful in the G-League, they are recommended for hire into the NBA or WNBA.
The problem with this system is that while the NBA and WNBA are both marketed as being the pinnacle of officiating, the reality is that the WNBA serves as a secondary development league for referees who are looking to move on to the NBA.
According to the NBA Officials Guide, 24 of the referees who worked in the NBA this year worked in the WNBA during the early stages of their careers.
As a result of this system, the top referees from the WNBA are poached every couple of years, and their roles are filled by far-less experienced candidates.
The WNBA should not be treated as a development league for referees. It is a professional basketball league. If high-ranking executives in the NBA and WNBA are going to continue to boast about the WNBA being the top women’s basketball league in the world, how they treat officiating problems in the league needs to reflect this. The WNBA should be a destination, not a stepping stone.
With playoffs beginning on August 17, there’s not much that can be done to improve how games are called in the short term. In the long term, however, the league needs to consider how to resolve some of the controversies surrounding its officials.
The WNBA is at a point where viewership is increasing, there are talks of expansion, and players are becoming more well-known. It is not a great look for the league when it is surrounded by headlines of travel woes, missed calls, and frustrated players.
As players have been calling for their playing conditions and traveling conditions to improve, the league must also ensure that conditions for referees improve as well. After all, if referees in the WNBA and NBA are treated differently, prospective officials are going to continue to want to use the WNBA as a stepping stone in their career. Why would someone want to stay in a job when they know that there are better options for them elsewhere?
We began this article with a quote from a player in the league, so it’s only fitting to conclude this article with a quote from another player (Skylar Diggins-Smith):
“Honestly we have to decide what we want our game to look like. Right now (it seems that) the league, the players, and the officials all have three very different views on how our game should be played.” It’s time for all three of those groups to come together and find a way to keep elevating the quality of the WNBA. If the league is going to be branded as the pinnacle of women’s basketball, it needs to be officiated in a way that reflects that.