A Difficult Conversation: Joey Crawford and the Spurs


The most perilous topic an observer of the NBA can touch upon is that of refereeing. It is nearly impossible to discuss the topic soberly, and the playoffs only worsen the problem. Any shred of objectivity gets drowned out by the intensity of the partisan jeering. But when I heard Joey Crawford was the assigned referee for tonight’s Spurs-Mavs game, I felt compelled to comment. I am issuing my opinion now in the hope that people will not read it as a reaction to the game’s outcome. I have believed what I am about to say for some time and I don’t want my thoughts to be colored by tonight’s events.

All in all, Joey Crawford seems to be a fine referee. The majority of the times I have seen him ref a game, I have had no major objections. I disagree with some of his calls but that is true of every referee in the league. Reffing a game in a manner that will be universally accepted is impossible. But I still believe Joey Crawford should no longer be allowed to referee games in which Tim Duncan plays.

I am not saying it would be to the league’s benefit if they had an informal policy of not scheduling Crawford to referee Spurs games (although that is also true). I am saying that it should be a hard and fast rule that Crawford is not allowed to referee games that involve Tim Duncan. If Tim Duncan were to move to another franchise before the end of his career (however unlikely that may be), this rule would apply to that team as well. The focus of the rule is Tim Duncan, not the Spurs.

I believe this because Crawford has a documented infraction against Duncan which earned him a suspension. During the 06-07 season, when he threatened to fight Tim Duncan during a game (against the Mavericks), he established a permanent conflict of interest. In a court of law, If an attorney can establish a conflict of interest with a judge, that is grounds to have a different judge try the case. Documented evidence that the judge had threatened to fight either the defendant or the plaintiff would easily suffice.

But for some reason the NBA has a more difficult time acknowledging the reality of human relations. Saying Joey Crawford’s ability to call a game involving Tim Duncan evenly has been compromised does not mean Joey Crawford’s ability to referee any game has been compromised. All it acknowledges is that referee’s are humans too.

By taking their fallibility into account and not putting them in a situation where they are forced to choose between their biases and their sense of fairness, the NBA would not be undermining the authority of referees. Instead, it would be recognizing that complete objectivity is unachievable and admitting the best they can do is encourage situations where the fair call is more likely to be made. There is no reason the NBA should feign standards even the American legal justice does not uphold.

Unless a particularly controversial incident occurs, I won’t be discussing the referees in my recap because I won’t be focused on them. And I encourage you to not focus on them as well. It is an aspect of the game the Spurs cannot control. But there are concrete changes the league office could make that would help restore confidence in the players and the fans. Ensuring that referees are not presiding over games that involve players they have a documented conflict of interest with is one of them.

  • Krista

    In the last week of the regular season, Crawford worked a Spurs home game. As usual, the officiating was suspect. As the only recognizable ref, Crawford was singled out by fans near me. However, I noticed that Crawford was the only ref calling anything in the Spurs favor (Tim included).

    While I get where you are coming from, my observations indicate the possibility that Tim and Joey made amends. I’ve also noticed them interacting on the court. If you recall, Tim had a run in with Jack Nies a few years ago. Nies does seem to hold a grudge. And Tim avoids him still. At least that’s been my observation at home games.

  • Jesse Blanchard

    Damn…normally, back when I was working for newspapers and writing my own blogs, I tried to keep my posts intelligent and with room for discussion (even if the few things I’ve posted here arent’).

    But Joey F-ing Crawford?! I hate conspiracy theorists, Stern haters, and really any excuses, but: Joey F-ing Crawford!

    My exact first words after the last game ended, and before heading to Fiesta, “The only thing that can ruin this is if Joey Crawford shows up for Game 3.”

    So, again, before the game starts I have a feeling that this post will have some sort of relevance by the end of the night: Joey F-ing Crawford.

  • SpurredOn

    Krista: I appreciate your perspective from being courtside. I’d hope that Joey has moved past whatever Duncan and/or Spurs bias he has. Perhaps the suspension in ’07 plus time allowed for healing. I had forgotten about Nies as that one is definitely a one-on-one problem. I just hope no ref-player feud ever makes it to the Drexler/O’Donnell level from the ’90s. In light of O’Donnell’s career ending as a likely result of that, Graydon’s request does not seem unfair or unrealistic. That it hasn’t happened gives me shallow hope that their relationship was repaired.

    The odd parallel with tonight again being a game 3, in Dallas, in a 1-1 series, does not escape me. Hopefully it is all non issue and the Spurs play better and earn the win. That Joey could be present and invisible in such a critical game might help bury the past for good. He obviously plays a part in that happening but I certainly have hope.

  • Kevin

    If Dirk takes 25 free throws tonight…

  • Latin_D

    Spot on, Graydon. Great article.

    That said, I sincerely doubt Joey will have that much influence in tonight’s game. The stage is too important.

  • LionZion

    If the game is close, human nature and implicit biases are impossible to predict. I really hope we play strong and not keep it too close for the refs to have an impact.

  • ChillFAN

    Most Mav fans claim Danny Crawford poisons their chances. I’m sure he’ll be in a key game. While I see your point, I agree with the NBA: any ref should be able to ref any game. Joey should not be in the league, period, because he lost his cool and challenged a player to a fight. Joey should have been thrown out of that game. How many chances does a judge get if she abuses her power? What if a teacher loses his cool and slaps a kid? The police officer only beat up Rodney King once, right? Second chances, sure, but in another line of work.

  • Route53

    Last nght’s game between San Antonio and the Warriors was a perfect example…..no fouls called on Duncan at all!