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Behind the Effort to Humanize the NBA Referee

The attorney working for the National Basketball Referees Association stopped by and discussed the need to humanize NBA referees, the second volume of a two-part series with Boardroom.

In the first edition discussing the National Basketball Referees Association and the latest collective bargaining agreement, NBRA attorney Lucas Middlebrook explained the intricacies of negotiating more money for officials. In doing so, Middlebrook, an attorney at Seham, Seham, Meltz & Petersen LLP, spoke passionately about how the human element is often overshadowed when fans and players berate these people.

“They’re part of the product on the court, right? When you’re watching the game, you see the players and you see them. This is who you see,” Middlebrook said. “And by large, they go about their business and now, diehard fans know some of their names. I’ll say that one thing that the union has done very well is humanizing these individuals through their official union social media accounts.”

Indeed. Most fans know several officials by name — for better or worse. You know, the Scott Foster and Chris Paul fiasco that’s played out for years. But behind this vilified persona is still a human being, with feelings, with a family and loved ones.

Back to Middlebrook’s point about utilizing social media to humanize these men and women. During the 2022 NBA Playoffs, while hip-hop artist Jack Harlow was shown in the crowd, Foster looked over at fellow official Ed Malloy and asked, “Who’s Jack Harlow?”

Malloy replied by saying, “I have no idea. … Who is he?”

The interaction went so viral that Harlow actually replied.

Playing along with the jokes, the official NBA Referees page posted a video of Foster walking to his car with a Jack Harlow song playing in the background. When Foster sits in the car with the three other officials, he starts rapping the lyrics.

These are the little things the union is pushing in an effort to show the audience that they aren’t robots.

“I thought that was great,” Middlebrook said about the exchange. “I liked it just because I think all sports figures should be humanized and treated with respect in that, you know, this is a human being, too. They have families and they have people that they care about. They’re not going to always be perfect, and you know, the referees — they’re away from their families a lot during the season, another reason why their compensation should account for that time away.”

When asked about how tensions have risen between fans and officials due to legal sports betting, Middlebrook agreed. He also noted that when people have their hard-earned money invested into something, emotion always becomes a factor. It’s part of the job, but he believes it’s on the union to ensure that officials are not only protected but also properly compensated for it.

But the problem is it’s bigger than that; it can also be seen as a societal problem. This is especially true when fans consume media regarding disgraced referee Tim Donaghy, a story that has resurfaced of late thanks to Netflix’s Untold: Operation Flagrant Foul. They automatically assume officials are out to get them, in a sense. In reality, however, it’s mostly just the case of one bad apple.

“Fifty percent of the fans are always going to be upset with a close call,” Middlebrook said. “[Refs social media has] done a good job of humanizing what’s a group of roughly 75 people who are the best of the best in the world. At the end of the day, there needs to be a recognition that this is a group of highly trained individuals, who really are at the top of their profession in the world.

“And that’s who they have to be, because they’re officiating athletes who are also at the top of their profession, too.”

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As of Oct. 24, 2022, bettors have wagered roughly $157 billion in states that have legalized it, with sportsbooks earning nearly $11.6 billion in revenue. Sports betting used to be seen as a vice, something that wasn’t necessarily acceptable. But as we know, vices can lead to income. The power of the dollar is too much for sports to pass up, even if some question its integrity of it.

As the union continues to adjust to the rise in gambling, Middlebrook said his focus remains to keep referees safe while also being held in check for the sake of integrity.

“It’s focus in terms of why these referees need to earn a respectable amount through their collective bargaining agreement because now there is that extra layer developing in terms of the pressure of their work,” he said. “I don’t wanna say the importance, but they are the arbiters of the game. And it’s their job on the court to not only enforce the rules, but to uphold the integrity of basketball, which without them, the sport doesn’t thrive. So as this all developed, it’s just another reason that they need to earn a living commensurate with the pressure that’s being placed upon them.”

You want to talk about pressure? Take Draymond Green’s comments from January 2018 for example. The Warriors forward released some frustration he’s had with officials to The Athletic, going as far as to say that refs are “ruining the game” and that “a lot of it is personal.”

It’s not just the fans; it’s also coming from those they share the court with.

“If there were any hypothetical tensions that were running really high, then maybe the league would want to have a conversation with the union, but it didn’t come up in the [most recent] collective bargaining agreement,” Middlebrook said. “If it was something the parties felt they had to address, then they would address that. But outside of the work rules that are promulgated by the NBA, it doesn’t really factor heavily into our collective bargaining negotiation.”

Until you’re an actual referee yourself, it’s hard to fully empathize or understand the job and how it impacts one’s life. As sports fans, many of us for particular teams, we’ve likely all experienced a time or two where we complain about a blown call. Sometimes, it feels blatant.

But the point Middlebrook is trying to make in all of this is simple — take a step back and remember these are people, too. Actual human beings. No matter what anger or frustration one may have, it’s still just a game. It’s simply a person just trying to do their job.

We’d all do well to remember that.

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About The Author
Anthony Puccio
Anthony Puccio
Anthony Puccio is a former Staff Writer at Boardroom. Puccio has 10 years of experience in journalism and content creation, previously working for SB Nation, The Associated Press, New York Daily News, SNY, and Front Office Sports. In 2016, he received New York University's CCTOP scholarship and earned a bachelor's degree in Communications from St. John's University. He can be spotted a mile away thanks to his plaid suits and thick New York accent. Don't believe us? Check his Twitter @APooch.