Player Safety in College Basketball: When Will Referees Step-Up?

Player Safety in College Basketball: When Will Referees Step-Up?

The issue of player safety has been getting a lot of press lately, but mostly in the sport of football. Concussions have become a more serious problem as players weigh more, play more and hit harder. But what about player safety in college basketball? Basketball is a contact sport and there are fouls but I don’t think officials are taking a serious enough approach to calling flagrant fouls.

A perfect example of this was on the night of March 29. The Michigan Wolverines were playing the Kansas Jayhawks for a spot in the elite eight of the NCAA tournament. Less than one minute into the game one of the Jayhawk’s guards, Elijah Johnson, came up to Michigan’s Mitch McGary and hit him in the genitals. The officials called timeout and charged Johnson with a flagrant 1. A flagrant foul sounds serious, but a flagrant 1 is the equivalent to telling your son if he wrecks your car again he is grounded. It is simply a firm warning.

The NCAA has two kinds of flagrant fouls, Flagrant 1 and Flagrant 2. Flagrant 1 is a foul involving excessive or severe contact during live play. Flagrant 2 is extreme unsportsmanlike conduct, or excessive contact during a dead ball. As it appeared on television replays, Johnson made contact with McGary before the ball was inbounded by Michigan’s Tim Hardaway Jr. It seems like this would be a Flagrant 2 per NCAA rules, but that was not the ruling on the floor.

Why did the referees choose not to issue the Flagrant 2? I believe it is because that would have benched Johnson for the remainder of the game. In a day and age where college sports is highly valued by our society and referees are under constant scrutiny, tossing a player from a game can create quite the controversy. Officiating college basketball is a tough job – I wouldn’t want to do it – but if you take on that job your priority should be player safety, not your image.

The actions of Johnson bring up other issues about sportsmanship and the etiquette of players as well but if the officials do their jobs and call the games tightly I think the number of unsportsmanlike outbursts such as this one will greatly decrease. When officials neglect to call flagrant fouls and eject players from the game, they create a new culture of basketball, one in which players will have to fear for their safety.

Sports commentators and fans alike took to twitter to call out the inaction of the referees, to criticize the ugly display of behavior by Johnson and to sympathize with McGary. The consensus was clear: America doesn’t want to see a dirty game when it comes to college hoops. The NCAA needs to send a message to their officials that player safety is the number one priority and ejections must be issued when players act in unconscionable ways. As said by twitter user @temro11 this “Johnson to Johnson contact” should not be tolerated in Division I basketball: not by the players, not by the coaches and certainly not by the officials.