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On Karl Hess and Basketball Officiating

Karl Hess won't be paroling the court for the ACC the rest of the season.
News came down today that the ACC has cut ties with NCAA Basketball referee Karl Hess. Hess has been widely known to anyone that is a frequent viewer of top flight college basketball for many years. He is notorious, infamous, and anything but popular. But there are several layers to his no longer working that need to be further explored.
First, I am not a basketball referee. I am a sports official however. If you follow me regularly you have probably seen me tweeting about officiating during NCAA Football games. I am a high school football, lacrosse, and baseball official in Massachusetts. Massachusetts is one of the few states that uses NCAA Football rules for all high school contests, which is why I am so familiar with those rules. I've done varsity games for all three sports, and I've been doing it for more than a few years, so I'd like to think at this point I know a lot about the mindset of officials and what it takes to be an official at a high level. It is with that background that I come at this analysis.
The problem is why Karl Hess was removed from his position though. Most news outlets are reporting that it was due to a comment he made at a the Wake Forest - Louisville game, quoted below.
Karl Hess to me at the Wake-Louisville game tonight..."When I'm older, I want to sit in your seat & watch your Egyptian ass ref a game" #Wow — Mit Shah (@MitShahNoble) January 5, 2015
Now, Hess himself said that this was meant to be taken as a joke. I'm not going to try and parse if that was or wasn't a joke. Giving Hess the benefit, I'll say that it was meant to be taken as a joke. Even if that was the case, the ACC did the correct thing and remove him because even without any malice behind that statement, you just can't say those kinds of things today.

There was also one report that stated it was due to the technical foul he issued to Mark Gottfried with 15:58 on the clock in the first half on December 14th. This was the first NC State game for Hess in about three years, since the widely known incident where he threw out two famous NC State alums and was reprimanded by the ACC for doing so. This latest technical was reportedly (and I have no doubt this is true) after being told by his supervisor to take it easy in the game. This makes absolute sense to me that his assigner would remind him to go easy considering the last time he was there was the Gugliotta and Corchiani incident. But within the first five minutes of the game he issued a technical foul. If anything, this should have been the reason to end his relationship with the conference. It's problematic it had to be the other reason.

It goes back to my point I've held all season that there is simply not enough accountability for the officials that most directly impact a game far more than any other sport. Officiating basketball is the hardest job an official can have. It is a fast game, and a lot of judgment needs to be used. It's a lot harder to judge a block versus a charge than say a false start or a block in the back in a football game. But this is an official that has repeatedly had issues on the court, not only for the calls he has made in terms of basketball fouls, but the overall spectacle that his officiating has become.

No one should know who Karl Hess is. The only reason you should even know an official's name is because they are respected by their peers and coaches. If you do know their name, chances are it's because they've blown one and it cost your team a game. Now, I say that with a grain of salt, knowing full well that 99.99999999% of the time one call does not a game make, correct or not. 100% of the time a call is made in good faith. I hate to break it to you, but I don't think Karl Hess or any of his fellow officials care of Michigan State beats Iowa, etc., etc., etc. There is no grand conspiracy. There is no betting. There is no malice. Those that think there is are genuinely dumb and probably should give up on watching all sports completely and just watch the WWE instead. (That all goes double for me reffing your kid's JV lacrosse game) But the fact that Karl Hess has become such a figure in popular culture among basketball fans, and even has the nickname "King Karl", should tell you just how much of a problem his officiating has become. If one referee blows a call, even a HUGE call, yes it will still follow them, but they don't draw the ire or notoriety that Karl Hess has attained over the last several years. And a completely unbiased look at it (or even a biased look shading on the side that the officials are correct a vast majority more than they are wrong [which is true]) would even show that Karl Hess is not as good of an official as his resume would let on. Otherwise you would have no idea who he is and there wouldn't be Grantland articles written about him.

And the worst part is, if you look overall, his (for lack of a better term) success rate is probably lower than a decent chunk of his partners, and possibly even more than some talented officials working D2 or 3 looking to move up. When you can fill out a Top Ten list of controversial moments in your officiating career, all of which are from 2012 on, you have some problems. Especially Hess was one of the officials selected to do the Final Four after the Gugliotta and Corchiani incident in 2013.

My point is, it isn't some off handed joke that contained a racial remark that should have done Hess in. It should have been the quick T or any other on court mistakes. Officials are meant to administer the game, make sure it advances as scheduled, in a orderly manner and so that it is fair to all participants. Part of that is knowing and enforcing the rules. Part of that is being in the best position to make calls. Part of that is judgement and interpreting what you see at lightening speed, deciding, and reacting to it accordingly. No where in any of that criteria is issuing technical fouls because you don't like a coach who hasn't seen you in three years because you messed it up three years ago. There are very clear guidelines and interpretations for what should and should not be a technical. I can't imagine would could happen in a game that early that could earn a technical foul that quickly. In 2012, after the NC State incident and being officially reprimanded by the ACC, he worked seven more ACC Conference games, 12 games in other conferences (mostly Big East/SEC), three Big East Tournament games, three NCAA Tournament games (including an Elite 8) and an NIT game. That is the definition of zero accountability. Even if after that reprimand he didn't work ACC games, that's still a ton of other games he could do, not to mention just picking up other smaller leagues instead of ACC games. And after all that, he got postseason assignments. It seems only when alleged racial comments are made, will other leagues go to bat with the first league that decides to freeze a guy out.

People often say "I didn't pay to see you officiate". That's right. You came to see a game. Officials are just part of it. Sometimes I think that notion is lost on some of the guys at the very top of the officiating pyramid. Both top officials, and their supervisors. I'll never rag on an official for being highly demonstrative when making a call. That theater is part of selling the call, a necessary and valuable part of any official's game. But it's when you start letting the little things bug you, that's when you need to know it's time to hang it up. Hess either was never that think skinned to begin with, or his ego got the better of him. People slip. Just ask Jim Burr (although he literally walked off the court during the BET with time on the clock and only had to sit out the rest of that postseason and picked right back up in the Big East the following season [again, where is the accountability?]). Knowing when to hang it up is just as important a call for an official as the goaltending call in the National Championship. It seems Hess may have missed that chance.

While I am certain that Karl Hess was once a good Division 1 basketball official at some point, it is clear that he should not be working the games he is working. He either should have been assigned less high profile games, less games total, or gotten assignments with non-Power 5 conferences instead. The worst part is, I don't have too many suggestions for how to make the system better anyway, other than the league assigners taking a serious soul searching and telling colleagues and friends that they are doing things on the court that shouldn't be done and assigning less games or more training accordingly. While the ACC, and now the American Athletic Conference has stated that Hess will no longer referee games for them, the Big East is conducting its own investigation before they make a determination. The Supervisor of Officials for the Big East is former Big East official John Cahill. He's known Hess for a number of years and worked with him plenty. I actually do have complete faith that Cahill won't employ him either. But the problem is most of the people that become supervisors are then supervising their friends and former colleagues. Therefore, they are very resistant to do anything but say "hey you missed one" when in actuality Hess probably should have faced a suspension a while ago, instead of just not doing the ACC Tournament (which he ended up doing the Big East Tournament so who cares if you're him anyway?) Just another part of the structure of college basketball officiating that has a built in flaw. But again, what is the solution? How can one man or office, like the NCAA, review, evaluate, and promote, demote, or suspend officials with any sort of efficiency or competency? That is why the conference supervisors are given the autonomy. So can basketball officiating be fixed? With 32 conference supervisors filling their games with a nationwide pool of officials, and officials not restricted to only working 1 or 2 conferences, people can just float along getting as many games as they want essentially without any checks other than someone watching game film and saying good call or bad call.

We all love college basketball. And sadly Hess meets a tragic end. I'm sure he may work again. None of the articles or comments I've seen have made it clear if the ACC is done employing Hess forever or just for the remainder of this season. Or if the American or other leagues will do the same. But one thing is clear, Hess was long overdue for some sort of discipline from the ACC. Maybe if some better system was in place it wouldn't have even gotten to where it is now.

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