The women's game, officially, has a problem
It was one of the greatest questions in the history of women's basketball. This was 2001 in Hartford, when late, great Connecticut sportswriter Randy Smith posed the following to Pat Summitt:
"So coach," R. Smith said, "when do you think the officiating will catch up with the level of play?"
The room was awash in giggles. Summitt, who had just endured a brutal call late in the game, smirked.
"I'm not touching that one," she said.
But it was clear she appreciated the question.
So now it's 11 years later and Smith's question still resonates.
The officiating in the women's game, college and professional, is an inconsistent, disjointed, rudderless mess. There is unnecessary ambiguousness, an alarming absence of communal agreement on what constitutes a foul, when they are called and why.
Exhibit A was Sunday night at the Final Four. A physical, but entertaining beginning became another rendition of "Whistle While You Work" by the second half. And nobody knows why. But it's classic women's basketball: call it one way early and another way late.
It's akin to baseball players adjusting to how the pitch six inches outside gets called a strike early in the game … and then barking later when the same pitch suddenly becomes ball four in the bottom of the seventh.
The subject of officiating trended on Twitter during the UConn-Notre Dame game. Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins called for a "ref-olution" in the women's game. Indiana Fever coach Lin Dunn checked in, too. Here are some of their tweets:
Dunn: "officials have lost control of the game … on TV it looks like a football game."
Jenkins: If I'm UConn or ND, I turn to the ref and shout, 'Flagrant? How about you flagrantly ignoring the rules the whole game???'"
Jenkins: "Let's face it: In the women's Final Four, you don't know what's legal from one possession to another."
Jenkins: "You see missed calls and mistakes by men's NCAA refs. What you don't see is rugby on one end and badminton on the other. That's the women."
Jenkins: "Doris Burke and ESPN need to quit bailing out the atrocious officials."
Burke was asked to comment on that Monday at the Pepsi Center.
"In no way, shape or form do I feel like we gave the officials a pass," Burke said. "Do I think either coach thought they got the short end of the stick? Absolutely not. Muffet (McGraw) just said that to us. Could you make the argument there was inconsistency? There was inconsistency from players and officials. It's part of the game. It was as difficult a game to officiate as I have ever seen."
Just because Sunday's game was difficult to call, Burke said, doesn't mean there's not a problem in the women's game. And this comes from among the most qualified observers in the country. Nobody else sees more basketball on three different levels: NBA, men's college, women's college.
She agreed with the premise that why, when and how fouls are called in the NBA and men's college basketball is far clearer than in the women's game.
"You see a great deal more personal interpretation as to how the game is called in women's game," she said. "I marvel at how few times I ever question calls in the NBA. The men's college game is next. Women's is third. The officials in women's basketball have to get better. And they will."
NCAA officials need to read what Burke just said: "a great deal more personal interpretation." That's what makes coaches, fans and media dive for either Jack Daniel's or Mylanta. Personal interpretation is a byproduct of being human, of course. But the baseline for officiating is objectivity. The women's game must establish clearer, common-denominator information for its officials and convey it to us, too.
What we have now is a jailbreak from the village green of common information, replaced by too much "personal interpretation."
Maybe it could start with what Deb Antonelli, radio analyst for Westwood One, was saying Sunday night. At halftime, we talked about how the second half would be called. Antonelli said, "just protect the shooter."
She meant this: Call the game the same way as the first half. If contact alters a shot, make the call. Otherwise, stay out of the way. They'd already established some leniency. It made for better flow.
Instead, the whistles changed the game.
And what of tonight? No two teams in the country get to the free throw line more than Baylor and Notre Dame. There's a chance this could be the first three-hour national final in the game's history.
How about they listen to Antonelli: Protect the shooters and let Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins entertain. They've figured it out in the NBA and in the men's college game. The women's game needs to take better notes.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.
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