Cooperation, not Confrontation: the NBA model for dispute resolution

As the NFL enters its offseason with declining viewership and continuing player disciplinary issues, the NBA’s All-Star weekend arrives amid record viewership and a player-referee summit.  The NBA’s mediation-type model stands in stark contrast to the heavy-handed NFL disciplinary procedures that have been criticized by players, fans and owners alike the last few years.

The NBA’s summit was called in the wake of increasing player frustration over refereeing in general and personal and technical foul calls in particular.  A review of the season’s statistics to date, however, reveals no increase in the number of fouls called, although some high profile names have received uncharacteristic calls.  An infamous incident in which referee Courtney Kirkland and Golden State Warrior Shaun Livingston head-butted each other helped bring the situation to a head. While the NBA subsequently removed Kirkland from the refereeing rotation for one week and suspended Livingston for one game, no further draconian measures were employed.  Rather, the NBA sought to find common ground that would help alleviate the players’ increasing angst while also addressing the referees’ growing concern about the players’ on-court reaction to calls and post-game criticism of officials.  Significantly, at this weekend’s summit, the participants were three players and three referees–not NBA officials. Going forward, the referees and the players have committed to a plan that includes increased education about the Respect for the Game Rules in particular, meetings with each of the teams for further clarification, the development of joint recommendations to improve game rules, and a plan for continuing dialogue between the two groups.

The contrast between the NBA’s diplomatic efforts and the NFL’s typically oppressive responses to disciplinary issues could not be greater.  Like the NFL, the NBA is facing a potentially serious burgeoning issue that involves the integrity of the game as well as a possible public relations disaster.  There have already been more than a few calls for Commissioner Silver to “sit on” highly compensated players whose on-court behavior and off-court complaints about calls rankle some fans. Nevertheless, the Commissioner has adroitly avoided this response, instead working through the stakeholders themselves to seek resolution.  It remains to be seen how effective this approach will be, but, at least at the outset, it would seem that the NFL should be paying close attention to the NBA’s model of dispute resolution.

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