You know the scene: The whistle blows. A foul is called. The players involved go ballistic. They do their best Tim Duncan: Eyes wide, mouths agape, they incredulously stare at the official as he details the call to the scorer's table. The coach protests, too. He's out on the court in the referee's face, or far beyond his designated coach's box, and he's every bit as angry about the call as his 19- and 20-year-old players.
If you can see it now in your mind's eye, well, it's not because my description is Pynchonian. It's because you see this situation, or some version of it, almost every time you watch a college basketball game. Or maybe it just feels that way.
Last week, John Adams decided he'd seen enough.
It was time for the NCAA national officiating coordinator's monthly memo to the nation's hoops officials, and Adams -- usually a mild-mannered, wonky sort -- was unambiguous and forceful in his message to referees: Enforce sportsmanship, and enforce it now.
"I just felt it was time to get the officiating community on board on this," Adams said by phone this weekend. "We need to do a much better job than we've been doing to enforce sportsmanship -- not only among players but among coaches on the sideline."
In the memo, Adams described his constant hoops travels -- when we spoke, he was futilely searching for his rental car in the Oakland airport parking lot, part of a west coast weekend swing that included stops at three different games -- and his dismay at witnessing officials fail to penalize players and coaches under the guise of Rule 10, Section 5 of the NCAA college hoops rulebook. Rule 10 "deals with Unsporting Technical Infractions committed by players, substitutes, and bench personnel, including head coaches." Article 1 is about players; Article 2 is about coaches.
Last week, Adams wrote that both are in need of more structured officiating:
"In games I have attended, I have noticed minor unsporting indiscretions between opposing players go unnoticed by officiating crews and invariably, these unnoticed acts later turn into much bigger problems," Adams wrote. "Pay attention to the interactions of opposing players. Use preventative officiating to head off bigger problems BUT also have very low tolerance for players who violate Article 1, especially when it comes to taunting, baiting, using profanity or threatening gestures towards opponents. You should have a very low tolerance for players who use profanity towards officials or who "wave you off" after a call etc."
"These types of actions call for Technical fouls," Adams continued. "Call them! Your coordinators and commissioners will support you."
"Article 2 deals with the conduct of bench personnel," Adams wrote. "If a coach is out on the floor complaining about a call, it is not your job to walk him back. It is your job as an official to assess a technical foul for violating the provisions of 10-5-2, a,b,c, e or f. If a coach is gesturing and complaining across the floor at you to the point where he has ignored a warning to stop, DON'T go across the floor to have a 'baseball umpire confrontation' with him, just assess him a Technical foul."
Adams told referees they had the support of their conference coordinators and commissioners, closing with an inspiritment: "Enough is enough! Let's be committed to doing a markedly better job in this area between now and the end of the season."
College coaches have been coming out of their designated area for years. Players have always -- and probably will always -- complain about calls and talk trash to opponents. Why the sudden emphasis?
"I first grew alarmed -- alarmed isn't the right word, maybe, more concerned -- when College GameDay did a report a few weeks ago on the deterioration of sportsmanship in the sport," Adams said. "A few days later, CBS College Sports followed up with a piece on the aberrant behavior of coaches on the sideline. It was just time."
In other words, Adams spoke now because the 2011-12 season has featured more high-profile sportsmanship issues than at any point in the recent past. The Dec. 10 brawl between Xavier and Cincinnati was blamed in part on officials' unwillingness to police both Musketeers and Bearcats players while each side barked at the other throughout an ugly second half. A Jan. 12 game between Arizona and Oregon State nearly erupted into a similar fracas. There have been scores of minor incidents along the way: Iowa coach Fran McCaffery chucked a chair in East Lansing. Marquette forward Jae Crowder issued throat slahes toward an opposing bench. Most recently, Oklahoma State guard Markel Brown was ejected from the Cowboys' recent win against Missouri for taunting the Tigers after an insane one-handed alley-oop slam, his second such post-dunk offense in that game.
The Brown scenario sparked debates on shows like "Pardon The Interruption," which wondered whether the NCAA was being too punitive -- too anti-fun -- in kicking a player off the floor after celebrating a dunk. For his part, Adams saw progress.
"People can debate that, but that was the exact right call," Adams said. "It's not even close to being debatable. You make a dunk, and you turn around and taunt your opponent for the second time in the game? If the message doesn't get across the first time, then you have to leave the game."
As always, situations like Brown's present challenges in their potential subjectivity. The slope, as always, can be slippery. Likewise, referees -- who are trained that the best officiating performance is one the fans never notice -- are understandably concerned with avoiding an impact on the outcome of the game. They're rightfully hesitant to assess coaches and players technical fouls, especially if those technicals result in ejections. Adams said he hopes the memo empowers officials, helps them realize the national office as well as provincial hoops authorities have their backs when the unpopular call becomes the only right one.
Likewise, Adams cited the difficulty of organizing and standardizing officials in all 31 Division I men's basketball conferences, asserting that it was the NCAA's hope that every official in the country could and would make the same call in the same game situation regardless of league or venue or the personnel involved -- especially with the NCAA tournament, the sport's grand showcase, just around the corner.
"Most coaches in the country behave with good sportsmanship," Adams said. "It's the few who don't that poison the well. Same goes for players. As referees we're empowered and asked to ensure that our games are conducted in good sportsmanship.
"The memo was reminding our officials that we have good rules that are very clear as to what our expectations are," Adams said. "Let's step it up a little bit."