Let’s establish the basics. Sports need rules because, without them, they’re not really sports. What differentiates MMA from two dudes mauling each other in the street is the fact that there are a handful of things the fighters aren’t allowed to do. MMA is about as purely chaotic as sports get; most of the other ones have many, many more rules.
The goal of anybody who belongs to a sport-governing body should be to have as few rules as possible without corrupting the sport’s fundamental nature. Interpretations will vary on what “fundamental nature” means, but only up to a point. While we can argue about whether or not the NBA should allow hand-checking, we can also agree that it would be pretty stupid if Adam Silver announced that shots from behind the halfcourt line were now worth 50 points.
There are some things we’re never going to achieve total clarity on, in part because language fails us. You can write down, point-by-point, what constitutes a catch in a football game, and you’ll think you’ve got it pinned down. The next week, you will inevitably see a catch/non-catch that makes you question what in the hell maintains control means. The same goes for a block/charge in basketball, or a balk in baseball. You know it when you see it—the problem is, so does everybody else, and they don’t always see it exactly the same as you do. But at least the rule is there as a guideline. A rule that’s a little bit fuzzy is often better than having no rule at all.
Anyway, you get it: rules are important. That means that referees, who are the only ones on the court or field with any power to enforce these rules, are also important. If we relied on James Harden’s personal shame to prevent him from traveling, he would bunny hop from the baseline to the top of the key before launching a three. So it’s generally a good thing that there are men and women with whistles to prevent this from happening.
These men and women are often kind of bad at their jobs, mostly because the job itself is exceedingly difficult. There are lots of rules to learn and some of them are quite complicated. At the professional level, the speed of the game is so rapid that it’s literally impossible for a small team of people to properly legislate everything that happens.
If we’re being realistic, the role of the referee is to control the game and call it consistently rather than to get every decision right. If you’re going to give one pitcher the high strike, give every pitcher the high strike. If you’re going to let one team’s defensive backs commit some amount of pass interference, give the other team roughly the same amount of leeway. Don’t be too arrogant to explain things to players and coaches who are frustrated with the way you regulate the game. Sometimes they need clarification! And you hope that after they receive it, they’ll leave you alone, because you’ve already told them specifically what’s permitted and what isn’t.
Sometimes refs are haughty jerks. They get all I’m in charge here! and fight with players and coaches over things that could be cleared up through a civil exchange. Sometimes players and coaches are rigid and unreasonable. Blinded by their desire to win, they don’t see sense, and they’ll complain about the same infractions over and over again.
In the end, there will always be tension between referees and the competitors in the games they preside over, but there needs to be a mutual respect between the two parties, or at the very least a lightly exasperated acceptance that if the ref blows a call, there’s little that can be done about it. They are functionally part of the game itself, and occasionally as much an obstacle as your opponent is. That’s a lamentable thing, but lamenting it extensively doesn’t accomplish much.
In fact, it can just piss everybody off, which is what the Houston Rockets are currently doing. In their Game 1 loss against the Warriors, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson challenged some James Harden step-backs with perhaps greater aplomb than the rulebook technically allows. They got into Harden’s landing zone—which is not a strictly defined term; there is no law that explains exactly what a landing zone is—and he fell to the floor as they intruded on his airspace. Some of these challenges were probably fouls, and some weren’t. The refs didn’t call any of them. It’s possible they simply screwed up, or that they were making a point about the way Harden kicks out his legs when he shoots and tries to bait defenders into these kind of fouls.
The Rockets are understandably aggrieved about this because Harden has gotten these calls for the entirety of the regular season, and the opening tilt of a series that will likely determine the eventual NBA champion is a bad time for refs to start altering the way they officiate Harden’s tactics. Taking the full measure of things, the refs were slightly unfair. The Rockets responded by complaining during the game (fine), then continuing to complain in the press (petty, but okay), then leaking a report on their 2018 Game 7 loss to the Warriors in which they claim that the referees made 81 questionable decisions and effectively screwed them out of a title.
This isn’t going to help the perception that the Rockets in general and Harden in particular are cheap-o foul-hunting whiners who work the refs at every opportunity and always have a built in excuse whenever they lose. They’re arguably just as good as the Warriors, and though they need the referees to do a decent job in order to win the series, they also need to do a bunch of other stuff that’s not well beyond their control. Figuring out how not to get torched by Kevin Durant, for instance. That seems like a time-consuming exercise. They would do well to focus on that rather than this strategic sore loser nonsense that’s about as likely to embitter the referees as it is to get them the style of officiating they want to see.
Sports have imperfect rules that are enforced unevenly. If you find this intolerable, here is the grim news: you don’t like sports and probably shouldn’t participate in them.