A conversation with former NBA referee Monty McCutchen on the league’s Respect For The Game initiative

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski
(AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Paul George gave a sharp and surprising response to what was supposed to be a meeting of productivity.

NBA Vice President and Head of Referee Development and Training Monty McCutchen visited Thunder shootaround on Monday to talk about the league’s new Respect For The Game initiative. Player-official relations have been in the spotlight this season, with veteran players like George and Carmelo Anthonysaying those relationships have changed since they’ve entered the league.

George didn’t think anything productive came from the visit. Like many All-Star players, George has cut a frustrated figure this season when it comes to quick technical fouls from officials, to pleas for more shooting foul calls. Officials feel the pressure of being graded on Last Two Minute reports. The NBA is at the center, which is partly why McCutchen is on the road.

The NBA itself has enlisted McCutchen and NBA Senior Vice President Michelle Johnson, the head of referee operations, to visit with all 30 teams on rules interpretations, on-court conduct and expectations of the referees. The National Basketball Players Association and select officials met during All-Star weekend in February to start a discussion about improving the on-court dynamic.

While McCutchen told The Oklahoman that the analytics show that player-official relations are similar to what they’ve been in the past – for instance, the number of personal fouls and technical fouls are in line with previous seasons – he thinks the first step is articulating that the league cares about these issues. In January, the NBA introduced a five-part plan to improve player/official relations which includes the team visits, expansion of rules education, enhanced referee training, additional reliance on the NBA’s Officiating Advisory Council and what the league called “a re-emphasis of the NBA’s ‘Respect for the Game’ rules,’ for players, coaches and officials.”

“We’re going to do our best to get around to the teams and show we’re willing to put the work in, that not only we’re willing to put the work in, but we’re willing for it to be authentic work, and work that means something to other people,” McCutchen told The Oklahoman. “Referees influence other people’s lives in that their decisions impact games. We want to be good at that and we want to acknowledge that we’re not as good as we’d like to be.”

In addition to his in-game pleas for foul calls, George wishes for a dialogue closer to the stories he’s been told about the old NBA.

“I heard from back in the day that the relationship between the official and the player was a lot better, where guys were actually able to talk to one another,” George said Monday. “Regardless of if they agreed or disagreed with a call, the player and the official could have a dialogue. It’s a little different in the NBA with some officials.

“I get it, we’re on them quite a bit, but some of them don’t know how to have a conversation or have that confrontation … that I’ve heard that’s how it was in the past.”

McCutchen said the NBA never had what he called a “Golden Age” where referees and players didn’t argue or disagree, but the communication has changed.

“That’s what we’re moving towards when we go from team-to-team,” McCutchen said. “… that from our end we’re going to get back to the work of communicating effectively and learning how to disagree again with more respect on both sides hopefully.”

Here’s more from McCutchen on his role, on what is required from players and how he feels the Last Two Minute reports have affected the player/official dynamic:

On what he’s doing when he goes to visit teams:

“Any time there’s a narrative that builds up, whether it’s positive or negative, the truth of it is always somewhere in the middle. Our analytics on player relations and referee relations are very similar to what they’ve been in the past in terms of analytics. But that doesn’t mean there’s not some truth, truth that is possible and necessary. Any time you’re involved in something that you care as much about as refereeing, specifically the NBA as it relates to refereeing, you want to look at what possible truths there are in that narrative. If you find there are some, and there always are some, then you have to do your part to carry your load of the water to make it better. For me, that’s what this is about. It’s about me taking ownership for whatever it is that my little corner of the staff is and making sure that we do our part. I don’t believe it’s a singularly referee issue. In general, and I don’t want to get away with social commentary, but in general we’re not as happy a group of people anymore since the Internet was thrust down upon our lives. I think there are issues at stake that don’t have to do with referees. I think that our part is to address part of it. And we’re going to do our best to get around to the teams and show we’re willing to put the work in, that not only we’re willing to put the work in, but we’re willing for it to be authentic work, and work that means something to other people. Referees influence other people’s lives in that their decisions impact games. We want to be good at that and we want to acknowledge that we’re not as good as we’d like to be. I think the first step is heading around to the different teams and articulating that we really care about this and we’re willing to do our work.”

On what part the players play in helping relations between officials:

“I’m probably reluctant to say specifically what players should do. I do believe though when you get into a situation where there is this kind of narrative that there’s not a relationship – because that’s really what we’re talking about is a relationship – is that everyone needs to look inward instead of outward to participate in the solution. I think that if all of us do that, it can’t help but improve our league. The real issue is we should all be focusing on the game. The game is what you love and what you cover. It’s what I love – it’s the reason I got into refereeing. It’s clearly what players and coaches love to dedicate their lives to the extent that they had to to be successful. All of us to be a part of something we really care about, fixing a small portion of it so that it can be improved is an inward thought process, not an outward thought process. For me, I would encourage all of us to do that. To circle back around, I think that’s one of the reasons we’re making these trips: to see how we can get better. I think each constituency can do that – coaches, team personnel, players. All of us have the ability to look inward and say ‘how can I be a part of the solution?’ Things don’t work as well when we’re constantly saying it’s your fault. Most of us have to get to a point where we’re willing to say ‘you know what? Whatever issues are at stake, these are the ones I can control. These are the ones I’m going to work on.’ The game is what matters. When the focus in on something other than the game, everyone has a stake in trying to do what’s best to improve it.”

On how the NBA’s Last Two Minute reports are viewed by officials, how they affect officials doing their jobs and their relationships with players:

“The L2M reports seem to be a hot button topic. I myself, I was never bothered by them, and I say that only to say I’m willing to own my mistakes. I think most of my staff is willing to own their mistakes and try to get better. Does that mean that everyone likes seeing their name? No, no one likes seeing their name in a negative light. That doesn’t mean though that the L2M’s are a bad thing. We live in a day and age where transparency is vitally important to the health of any industry. One of the things I’m proud about is I have faith in our group’s ability to do our job. Most of our L2M’s bear out that are people are very good at their work. What gets focused on are the few mistakes. I think one of the things that’s more important than whether or not we put out an L2M or not is this narrative that perfection is the only acceptable outcome for an industry’s work. Our work is never going to be perfect. We’re human beings doing human being things, which means a certain amount of inaccuracies. I think that if you and me and players and coaches and other people who are involved in the league can own the fact that referees are doing excellent work, albeit not perfect work, then the L2M’s can take their proper place as transparent – these are our imperfections, these are what we’ll continue to work on, nothing more, nothing less. But if perfection is the only answer that’s an acceptable answer, then NBA referees, L2M’s or not, will always disappoint. We do really excellent work on a night-in-and-night-out basis. Does that mean that we don’t own our mistakes? No. Owning your mistakes is an important part of growth. Whether it’s in writing, being a referee or being a coach, the people who own their own humanity do better. The people who don’t – who blame shift, who move pieces around to hide their own fallacies – they don’t do as well. And more importantly than they do not do well, they’re not received well. I know you work with people that are blame shifters, and when they walk in a room you’re like ‘dang.’ But the same is true in any industry, that we want to be around people who are authentic, and the L2M from my perspective is something that says ‘OK, here’s what it is. And this is where we’re really good.’ And if people would take the time to see how many times we’re getting calls right in the L2M, then that excellence up against perfection would show itself more I think. Unfortunately, that’s not really the way we live these days, and that’s unfortunate.”

On why he doesn’t necessarily believe the relationship between players and officials has changed:

 “I believe that what we do is build relationships, at least if we’re paying attention to our lives that’s what we do. And from that perspective, many of the players that are now assistant coaches and head coaches I refereed as players. When you build good relationships, you’re allowed to argue or disagree about the play itself. When we don’t take the time to build good relationships, we then are arguing about something else and the play is only the surface topic. But we’re really arguing about whether we believe we’re getting a fair shake, or if we can trust you. When you build good relationships, trust and fairness are understood. Now we’re just disagreeing about this play, and I think we’ve always had disagreements about plays. Players play with passion. Coaches coach with passion. They’re going to have a perspective that’s different than referees who are working to a standard, and that’s a difference. Players and coaches play to win. Referees attempt to apply standards without care of who wins. There’s always going to be a rub when you put those two competing goals up against one another. I don’t think that’s changed over time. I do believe how we go about arguing meaningful things can be improved upon, so that we can actually get to the disagreement about the play and it not be about the things other than the play.”

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