The intimacy of the basketball court has once again led to a news story that only five years ago would not have developed. Whereas once words spoken in the relative privacy of an arena, whether by coaches, players, or referees, would only be documented anecdotally, casual asides and chatters are now being recorded on Twitter and other social media outlets.
For example, months ago a story emerged surrounding Boston Celtic Kevin Garnett, who allegedly heckled an opponent about being bald, comparing him to a cancer patient. This became a story because the victimized athlete took to twitter to call out Garnett. The words were exchanged on a court, but it is a huge stretch to say this is the first time anything as this derogatory was uttered. In fact, Garnett is renowned for being a trash talker and is equally beloved by teammates and frustrated by opponents. Before Twitter, words between enemies would stay on the court, and those fans lucky enough to be within earshot would be privy to a side match amid the action.
This past weekend a similar incident developed during a game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Houston Rockets, but this time between a referee and a reporter. A sports writer for the Associated Press claims he overheard referee Bill Spooner tell Wolves head coach Kurt Rambis that he made a bad call, and would return the favor in the next half, after Rambis disputed a decision. Jon Krawcyznski tweeted: “Ref Bill Spooner told Rambis he’d ‘get it back’ after a bad call. Then he made an even worse call on Rockets. That’s NBA officiating folks.”
Spooner has taken offense and filed a lawsuit against the AP for making suggestions that he intentionally made a bad call to make up for one made earlier in the game. The 20-year veteran referee claims that the tweet led to a disciplinary investigation by the NBA, and that his reputation has been tarnished. Spooner is seeking more than $75,000 in damages and the removal of the tweet/quote from Krawcynski’s postings.
An attorney for the AP says their side believes the facts and reporting to be accurate, while the NBA claims that they “found [the tweet] to be without substance.” The NBA has also advised Spooner’s attorney to not follow through with the case as it’s not deemed productive.
They very well could all be right. It seems hard to claim that Spooner has been defamed or that his reputation has been tarnished, and thus a lawsuit is likely a waste of time and money. At the same time, the reporter is likely accurate with his quote.
Those who have followed the NBA for years upon years know and will attest that the “make-up call” is part of the game. Referees are not perfect, and it is not unusual for one to make a call that they soon realize was a mistake, and look to balance things out later in the game. Spooner is not new to the game, and he did not force a change in the outcome. The fact that he may have told a coach he would ‘get it back,’ is not news and it is hard to think that any player on either team would be deeply invested in the debate.
What has happened is that once again the networking capabilities and the immediacy with which social media operate have allowed those outside the game to get access from those in the arena. Five, ten, and twenty years ago the same exchange between referee and coach surely took place, and those who were looking for it and those close enough to see would have witnessed an identical exchange seen by Krawcyznski. This lawsuit would not have existed without social media.
It is not specifically Twitter–the message could have been posted on any site – that caused this incident, nor is it only the prevalence of social media either. Instead it is both the desire and embrace of a connection between journalists and fans on both sides. Reporters frequently tweet, often with their employer in their handle, claiming as much responsibility in 140 characters as they do in a newspaper. Conversely, fans follow those who follow the game, looking for short and immediate inside information. This incident is not news because a referee may or may not have given a call to a team to make up for another; it is news because sportsdom continues down the road in which fans will get greater and greater access to players, coaches, and officials, and what comes out may not always be desirable.