ORLANDO, Fla. — In addition to whistles dangling from strings around their necks, you might have noticed that referee crews in the Orlando Pro Summer League are also wearing headsets.
As the quest to improve the flow of games and communication on the floor continues, the NBA is experimenting this year with game officials using technology that keeps them in constant touch with each other and a sideline supervisor.
“It’s helped us with two things,” said 21-year NBA veteran ref Scott Foster, who is acting as an officiating supervisor in the Orlando league. “For one, we can hear everything they say to one another and evaluate when they say something to a coach. Is that the proper response or what? For instance, if the referee says to a coach, ‘I got that call right!’ We know to change that behavior and tell him he needs to be a little more communicative with that.
“The second thing we can do is hear them talking to one another and can understand when they’re telling one another, ‘Hey, I’m watching the ball right now.’ It’s easier, it’s better than having them screaming across the floor.
The NBA D-League used the headsets last season and they’re likely to make their way to the NBA eventually.
“Yes, I think so,” Foster said. “It’s just a matter of when. I think it’s something that will help our [NBA] staff down the road. We’ll be able to communicate in loud arenas in critical situations during live play. We’ll be able to make sure the entire crew is at a higher level of concentration.”
During the Summer League games, Foster sits at a front row seat along the baseline, mostly taking notes to be used in their postgame reviews. But he also has the capability to talk to the officials during the game.
However, that off-the-court observer — or super-ref, if you will — would not likely be part of an NBA scenario.
“I don’t think we’d have the guy on the sidelines chiming in,” said Foster. “In fact, I think that would be dangerous. As far as public opinion is concerned, you don’t want anybody thinking that we’re being told to do something. I don’t think you’ll ever see that.”
Foster, who officiated two games in the 2015 NBA Finals, is open to the idea, though he can see a drawback in the sense that a hands-free device on a cell phone doesn’t entirely eliminate distracted driving.
“Personally, I’d be OK either way,” he said. “I see the positives in it. But I also see some negatives in it. That is, the earpiece does take away one of your senses. If I have something going on over here and I’m not wearing an earpiece, I might turn my head real quick and realize, ‘Oh, my God, there’s a foul.’ Or there’s a matchup that’s deteriorating. Whereas with this earpiece, it does take away a little of my sense to my side on whichever ear I’m wearing it.”
But as a teaching tool, to give out and receive feedback in real time is invaluable.
“It’s phenomenal,” Foster said. “And it’s really helped me to understand where each referee is at and helps me teach them, because I can hear what they’re having to tell their partner.
“Look, despite what people might think when they’re out there rooting for their own teams, our goal is always to have the best game possible and that means having the best-officiated game possible. Using the earpieces here is a logical, good step toward that.”