28 May 2013

In Defense of Star Treatment

By Grange95

"All animals are equal. But some animals are more
equal than others."
~ George Orwell, Animal Farm

Last weekend, I was watching the Knicks-Pacers playoff game. Well, not so much watching as listening to the broadcast while doing some legal research and writing for work. The first half of any NBA playoff game isn't worth my full attention until the conference finals, unless I have an investment riding on the first half outcome.

At some point, the announcers got all excited as Carmelo Anthony drove to the hoop, split two defenders, and made a rather impressive, athletic shot. TWEET! And one! Two no-name Pacers—seriously, other than Roy Hibbert, name the other four Pacers' starters—stood there with the standard arms-up, "Ma, I'm innocent!" look that usually is about as sincere and persuasive as a Lance Armstrong interview. I glanced up for the replay. Eh, pretty ticky-tack, but pretty standard. The announcers expressed disbelief about the call, and in the ensuing Twitter commentary, a number of Pacers fans suggested Melo gets more foul calls because he's a superstar player who plays for the Knicks.

Well of course he does. And Justin Timberlake bangs more hot chicks than you do because he's rich, famous, and good-looking. It's what makes America great. Or at least better than Canada.

The subject of "star treatment" or "superstar rules"—the idea that star athletes get special treatment from officials—gets many sports fans and commentators all hot and bothered. The phenomenon is not limited to basketball. In baseball, the outside edge of the strike zone can expand by two to four inches for star pitchers, while it can contract nearly as much for star hitters. In football, star quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning draw more defensive penalties from the referees than do journeyman quarterbacks. In golf, the recent Masters tournament saw heated controversy when megastar Tiger Woods was given a two-stroke penalty instead of being disqualified for taking an improper drop and signing an inaccurate scorecard heading into the weekend rounds. Even the faux sport of poker occasionally gets in on the star treatment controversy when superstars like Phil Hellmuth or Scotty Nguyen skate by without penalty for conduct that would merit a penalty for lesser-known players.

Still, star treatment is most common in basketball, mostly because of basketball's unique penalty system in which any player racking up five (college) or six (pro) personal fouls is disqualified from the game. A star basketball player who picks up a couple of quick fouls is likely to sit out significant minutes of game time, unlike a baseball pitcher who walks a couple of early batters, or a football defensive back who commits a couple of early pass interference penalties. So it's not exactly shocking when star NBA players such as LeBron James are routinely called for fewer fouls than other players (including long streaks of games with no fouls at all). Even less surprising is LeBron's star teammate, Dwyane Wade, not being penalized with an ejection and suspension for an obvious flagrant foul as the Miami Heat charged to the 2012 NBA title.

Star treatment in basketball can show up in a wide variety of ways. Star players get more leeway with palming (e.g., Allen Iverson, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade) and traveling (e.g., Patrick Ewing, Blake Griffin, and James Harden). On a breakaway play with a collision between two opposing star players, referees will avoid a foul call on either player and opt for a bailout call, usually traveling, a jump ball, or out-of-bounds in favor of the offensive team. A close block/charge call goes to the star player. Star players can be rougher in the paint and guard closer on the perimeter, yet draw touch fouls on offense and flop for charges on defense. If an opposing player drives to the bucket against a star player and is fouled, generally the call goes against the non-star defensive player who rotated over to help defend the play. Perhaps most importantly, when a star player is in foul trouble, studies have established that the star player is far less likely to be whistled for a loose ball foul than their journeyman teammates.

Star treatment is especially prevalent in basketball because referees have such a wide range of discretion in deciding whether to call a foul on any given play. It's not that the NBA (or college or high school league) directs its referees to favor star players. Rather, it's more of an unwritten rule, an accepted and expected part of the game, for star players to be given more deference on calls. Coaches and players don't mind that the opposing star players will get some leeway, as long as their star players get the same accommodation. On the other hand, a referee who calls a "by the book" game and regularly tags star players with ticky-tack fouls will likely find his game assignments drying up.

Sports fans and commentators who rail against star treatment miss the point—star treatment is good for the game. First, it's important to understand that star treatment is not taking average players and giving them an unfair advantage over their similarly talented competitors. Rather, star treatment merely recognizes that some players have elite talent, and allows the game to be called in a way that showcases that amazing talent. LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and other NBA stars are so talented they would dominate their contemporaries regardless of how their games were called. Star treatment merely polishes the diamonds in the rough.

Second, star treatment is good for the journeyman players, the teams, and their leagues. Stars drive fan support, ticket and merchandise sales, TV ratings, and ad revenues. A study of star player LeBron James demonstrated the financial impact of his decision to join the Miami Heat:
  • Attendance increased from 19th to 4th in the NBA.
  • Ticket sales jumped from $50 million to $311 million.
  • TV ratings improved from a 3.9 to a 5.0.
  • Franchise value increased from $355 million to $425 million.
LeBron James and his fellow superstars are the key reason why the NBA's next TV contract is expected to jump from $930 million per season to more than $1.2 billion. A rising tide lifts all boats, and an extra $270 million per year in TV revenue alone makes it pretty easy for everyone in the NBA to not merely tolerate but actively embrace the concept of star treatment. Similarly, the fact that Tiger Woods has almost singlehandedly caused PGA tournament attendance, TV ratings, and purses to explode along with player product endorsement deals over the past fifteen or so years likely buys him a great deal of indulgence from the PGA tour and his fellow PGA players who have been busy cashing in on the Tiger Bubble.

Which brings us to the final reason why star treatment should be embraced by sports fans and commentators—it's what we want. Sure, when it's your team suffering from an opposing team's star player seemingly (or actually) getting the benefit of favorable officiating, it can be tough to stomach. But when a family of four (or four bros on a guys' night out) are looking at spending north of $200 for the privilege of attending an average NBA game, fans want to see the stars play the full game, not a battle of some mediocre bench scrubs. Sports are just another form of entertainment. Fans don't go to Broadway shows to see understudies fill in for stars, they don't go to movies to see the supporting character actors, and they don't go to rock concerts to see the opening acts. When fans sit down to watch the NBA playoffs, particularly the later rounds, they want to see classic games highlighting star players. They want to see Dominique Wilkins vs. Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing vs. Hakeem Olajuwon, Dr. J vs. Magic, Magic vs. Bird, Michael Jordan vs. Karl Malone, Michael Jordan vs. Charles Barkley, Kobe Bryant vs. Reggie Miller, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade vs. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook ... you get the idea. What sports fans don't want to see is all of the star players sitting on the bench for most of a high-stakes game.

Star treatment is all about selling the product, and that product is drama writ on an athletic stage. The most iconic moment of Michael Jordan's stellar career was his final NBA game—Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. In the closing seconds of that game, the Bulls were down a point when Jordan blatantly pushed off of the Jazz's Bryon Russell, freeing himself for the game-and-series-winning shot. It was an easy offensive foul call, yet an even easier non-call. The refs swallowed their whistles. The net snicked. Jordan rode off into the sunset with six NBA titles, ending with his final shot in his final game being a title-winner. Drama. At the end of the day, the game is about star players making amazing, memorable plays, rules be damned. No player, no coach, no fan would have wanted a referee running in and waving off that shot and calling an offensive foul on the greatest player to ever play the game, any more than they would have wanted a referee to call a charge on the Jazz's Karl Malone making a strong move to the rim in the waning seconds.

So next time you are inclined to kvetch about an opposing player being given star treatment, just remember:

You want star treatment. You need star treatment.

Grange95 is the author of the crAAKKer poker blog. Grange played high school basketball and refereed high school and AAU basketball for 18 years, including games involving numerous future college players and even two future Iowa-native NBA playersKirk Hinrich and Nick Collison. Grange regards himself equally incompetent as NBA referees Joey Crawford and Dick Bavetta.

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