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The NBA's referee whisperers
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- Ben Dowsett
With 53 seconds left in the fourth quarter and his Atlanta Hawks on the brink of elimination, Onyeka Okongwu makes a game-saving defensive play against the Cleveland Cavaliers .
After helping his team erase a 10-point halftime deficit while filling in for injured starter Clint Capela , Okongwu is assigned to Cavs center Jarrett Allen , who is playing off the ball as Caris LeVert runs a pick-and-roll with Evan Mobley . Allen slides along the baseline to clear the lane for Mobley's roll. Okongwu reads the play, leaving Allen just as LeVert releases a lob to Mobley, who's well past his man and in position for the alley-oop -- until Okongwu flies into the frame.
With perfect verticality and no illegal contact, Okongwu turns a sure-thing dunk into a Hawks possession. That single play from Okongwu increased Atlanta's win probability from 75% (a likely win) all the way to 93.2% (a near-certain win), per the website Inpredictable .
Okongwu, who admits to struggling with foul trouble as a rookie, might not have been capable of such a physical play like this a year ago. He might have struggled to go up vertically, or made contact with Mobley's body via his momentum; he might not have been disciplined enough to keep his arms straight up, avoiding any risk of a foul.
He's clearly capable now, and he says there's a major reason why: He's working with Don Vaden, a consultant from Third Side Coaching, and a referee whisperer of sorts.
Okongwu has decreased his per-possession foul rate by just under 10% in his second season while working with Vaden. His ability to stay on the floor was big for Atlanta in their play-in victory over the Cavs. He logged nearly 29 minutes (a top-five figure for him this year), and the Hawks outscored Cleveland by 21 points with him on the court. With Capela sidelined, Okongwu's ability to stay out of foul trouble is paramount as he plays a larger role against the Miami Heat .
Major corporations hire former hackers for insights on cybersecurity; NBA teams hire Third Side Coaching to learn more about referees. They help players and coaches see the game through the eyes of a referee: angles and mechanics, how to minimize foul risks, and on-court applications of that study. They also teach clients how to maintain a respectful dialogue, avoid technical fouls and build positive relationships.
The Hawks have been among Third Side Coaching's clients throughout the 2021-22 season. Vaden was introduced to players and staff early in the year, quickly building rapport within the organization. He consults with the coaching staff on everything from challenge usage to effective communication with refs.
His work with Hawks players has perhaps been even more notable, spanning from stars like Trae Young and John Collins on down the roster. Many around the team point to his work with bigs like Collins and Okongwu for its direct impact on their development. Okongwu spent hours with Vaden and assistant coach Matt Hill on the court this season working on his physicality, positioning and how to avoid foul trouble while on the court.
"Sometimes I do all this playing with my hands, trying to body guys," Okongwu told ESPN. "After practice, when I'm working with Hill, [Don] will come on the court sometimes and show me what I can do with my hands, what I should do with my hands, and what the referees see."
The Hawks are just one name on a growing list of Third Side Coaching clients, a Rolodex that includes NBA stars such as Damian Lillard , Donovan Mitchell and Jaren Jackson Jr .; championship-winning coaches such as Nick Nurse; and even some of the game's most famous broadcasters and media members.
DON VADEN SPENT NEARLY 15 YEARS as an NBA referee, then another 15 years in the officiating departments of both the NBA and WNBA. Vaden had already met Shelley Russi, the eventual founder of Third Side Coaching, while he was still an active official; Russi, just 30 at the time, impressed him with her court presence while officiating alongside future NBA referees at a summer ref camp in 2000, then enjoyed a 20-year career as an NCAA women's referee. Vaden would eventually help hire Russi into a position with the WNBA when he transitioned there in 2016.
Both leagues have come a long way from a refereeing standpoint in the past decade in areas like training, development and ref analysis; Vaden and Russi deserve at least some share of the credit here. Kiki VanDeWeghe, the NBA's former executive VP of basketball operations, says they "spent a lot of time talking about themes of consistency, transparency and simple, repeatable procedures that everybody could understand" and that Shelley made an impact on referee training, especially on the WNBA side.
Vaden left the WNBA in 2017 to start his own consulting business, and when Russi departed a year later, Third Side Coaching was born.
The work Third Side does varies based on the client's needs. Some teams, like the Hawks, opt for the full package: Both Vaden and Russi make regular visits and stay in touch with coaches and players alike throughout the season, working with them on everything from how refs make certain calls to the best ways to communicate with officials on the floor.
For Collins, Atlanta's star big man, verticality has been a major point of emphasis with Vaden through much of this season. In on-court sessions with Vaden and Hawks assistant coach Chris Jent, they honed the details of a vital area for many of the league's biggest players. "The natural tendencies that referees are going to look for when they make the call," Collins said. "We've been able to do a great job of allowing me to use my athleticism and play vertically without fouling."
Opponents shot 62.6% against Collins as the primary rim defender during the 2020-21 regular season, per tracking data -- not a great number for a guy his size (6-foot-9 and 235 pounds). That's down to 59.8% over this past regular season, minor progress. But in his four playoff appearances this postseason, it's down to an excellent 50% (on an admittedly small sample).
Swingman Bogdan Bogdanovic raves about the way Vaden has helped him build relationships with referees. When Bogdanovic entered the NBA as a top EuroLeague player, he struggled to adjust to a new league's officials -- something Third Side Coaching has worked closely on with him.
"I knew [the referees] didn't know me, but I wanted respect that I didn't deserve yet," Bogdanovic said. "I was probably complaining too much at the beginning, just a habit maybe... [Don worked with me on] relationships with referees. Trying to talk to them, not getting too emotional."
Sharpshooter Kevin Huerter , meanwhile, raves about his work with the consultants. Typically one of the last Hawks players on the floor during practice, Huerter looks to Russi and Vaden for help with the nuances of several officiating-related areas. "Shelley, in a lot of ways, she works with the tactile," Huerter said. "How to draw fouls, things you can look for within the play of the game."
Huerter, like Bogdanovic, also credits Vaden with improving the way he interacts with officials on the court. "In a lot of ways, [it's] just bridging the gap between player and ref," Huerter said. "If you disagree on a call, how to approach them about it. Knowing the rules about it so you can argue something and use facts behind your argument."
DAMIAN LILLARD IS one of the game's premier pick-and-roll maestros. The last thing Russi or Vaden would ever do is take even an ounce of credit here, but they might deserve just a little.
Lillard formed a bond with Vaden in 2018 when he began working with the Trail Blazers, one of his first clients. Initial conversations about things like communication and referee dialogue rapidly progressed to on-court work, where Lillard is quick to point to some of the nuances Vaden was instrumental in instructing him on.
"I shoot a lot of threes on pick-and-rolls, and guys are grabbing around my waist, guys are reaching out and hitting my arm and stuff like that," Lillard said. The issue: Those things weren't always visible to the officials. "Don would show me literally the angles that referees stand at. Referees have their spots on the floor where they're supposed to be as opposed to their partners. He would show me angles -- what [refs] can see, what they can't see."
Per Second Spectrum tracking data, the Blazers scored 1.03 points per chance on all Lillard pick-and-rolls ending in a shot, foul, or turnover in the 2017-18 season, his last before working with Vaden. That's a middling number at best, especially for a star of Dame's stature.
By the 2019-20 season, after working with Vaden for a couple of years, that number rose to 1.13 points per chance, and Lillard's rate of fouls drawn on such plays rose significantly. That gap may not seem huge, but it's the difference between an elite pick-and-roll ball handler (83rd percentile) and a slightly below-average one (33rd percentile).
Lillard is best known for his offensive exploits but also credits Vaden with helping him on the other side of the ball -- primarily in those same pick-and-roll alignments.
"How can I get into their body to get over a screen without getting [a foul]? What position can I be in that a screener can't screen me before it becomes an illegal screen?... That really helped me become a better pick-and-roll defender, and also made me more aware of things on the offensive end when I was navigating pick-and-roll," Lillard says.
A comfort level developed quickly. Vaden and Lillard would talk constantly during those first couple of years. Vaden's simple accessibility was a huge factor for Lillard, a gym rat like many other stars. "Before practice starts, [I'd] come onto the court and see Don and ask him a question -- and before I know it we'll be standing on the block and walking through stuff," Lillard says.
Lillard's connection with Third Side Coaching was a personal one in some ways. He's stayed in touch with Vaden to this day; he'll regularly send him plays after a game, then spend time on the phone breaking them down. Lillard hasn't worked as closely with Russi on the court but is familiar with some of the nonprofit, equality and officiating programs she has promoted in his hometown of Oakland (including a partnership with the Women's Premier Basketball Association, which is played in Oakland). "We stay connected," he says.
"[Don's] character really shined through to me, because he didn't always agree with me," Lillard said. NBA superstars like Lillard are often surrounded by yes-men; Dame appreciated someone who shot him straight. "That told me that story right away."
WHEN HE WAS HEAD COACH of the Orlando Magic , Steve Clifford brought in Third Side Coaching to give his team a preseason refresher on officiating in 2019 and 2020.
"It would start with new rules, areas of emphasis, which take place every year," said Clifford, currently a consultant with the Brooklyn Nets . "[Don] would come in and spend time with our group and go over, first, those things."
One year, Vaden helped the Magic focus on traveling calls. He set up stations on the practice court, each manned by a different assistant coach who went over a specific footwork theme or call example from the prior season, with the goal of familiarizing players with what referees would be looking for. "I think he helped me a lot in that way," Clifford said.
Clifford didn't know much about Vaden before hiring him, but he came highly recommended by fellow head coaches Terry Stotts and Dwane Casey. Vaden spent time with Clifford, many of his assistants and his players. If a player had a regular issue with a particular type of foul or play, Don would sit down with them to go over film, then apply it on the court.
"I just think the information they give is priceless, really," said Alvin Gentry, who hired Third Side to consult with the Sacramento Kings for the 2021-22 season. "A call here, a non-call there can end up winning a game for you. Just the way they explain things and the time they spend preparing film and clips for the players as well as the coaches, I think it's just invaluable."
With Gentry and the Kings, Third Side's involvement was even more direct: Vaden and Russi (who still lives in northern California) would actually get on the court during practice and officiate team scrimmages, often stopping midgame to point out or correct a particular infraction and, just as vitally, explain the reasoning behind it.
"There's an old saying that the eye in the sky doesn't lie, referring to film," said Kings forward Harrison Barnes . "Having someone like Don and Shelley who are able to take that film and break it down to you in terms of what's happening -- but also, how do you improve on that? That's what makes it special. That's what I got a lot out of this season."
A COMMON KEY TASK FOR THIRD SIDE COACHING is simply helping players accept the reality of their own fouling tendencies. Every NBA fan has seen a player on their team convinced they committed no foul while arguing with a ref -- despite replay showing an obvious, clear-as-day infraction. People in the throes of high-level athletic competition aren't always the most reliable self-narrators, it turns out.
Third Side Coaching often fills that role. It brands itself as "truth-tellers" who won't sugarcoat things for any of its clients; if you're fouling too much, they won't baby you -- they'll show you exactly how, and how to change it.
As a two-person group, both Russi and Vaden specialize in distinct areas. Both are naturally experts on call adjudication and simple "right or wrong" distinctions -- Don typically takes the lead here. His game notes for teams like the Hawks will include any close call in either direction, which he'll later review in detail so he can provide coaches and players with accurate information during the next day's practice. Third Side Coaching wants its players to know when a call against them was correct so they can adjust the behavior; Third Side also wants them to know when a call was incorrect, so the player won't mistakenly try to fix an issue that isn't present.
Shelley's role is a bit more wide-ranging. It will certainly include major on-court work for many clients, especially those groups like the Hawks, who bring Third Side in on a full-scale basis. Russi also touches on themes like mindfulness, communication and staying in the moment. She dives into player mindsets and helps them break through harmful patterns that might be impacting their performance.
"The benefit was how Don was able to not only break [things down], but with Shelley, they would ask questions that helped me get there on my own," said Jaren Jackson Jr ., fourth-year big man for the Memphis Grizzlies , who worked with them from 2019 to 2021 in an effort to curb some aggression that was leading to foul trouble. "It helped me correct a lot of things. I learned the mental and strategic side of the game that I needed very badly."
Russi and Vaden are clear about one major facet of their work: This is not about "gaming" or manipulating referees, but rather about helping their clients understand things from an official's perspective. "We never teach flopping, we never teach embellishment -- we teach about exposing the illegal defender," Vaden says.
"It's not about tricking the referee," Collins says. "It's about being savvy, being crafty. It's about understanding what's legal, what's not legal... Where can I gain an advantage legally?"
Time is spent not just on missed calls, but on why they were missed and how to react. What's the referee's angle? Could the player have done something different to exploit an opponent's infraction? Can the player approach the official respectfully to learn more about why a given call was made? A common recommendation made to players is to wait until a subsequent timeout to raise a grievance, allowing both player and official some space from the actual call.
"There [are] a lot of nuances -- I don't think all of us understand the training process that goes into being an official," said Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder; Third Side Coaching worked with both Snyder and stars Mitchell and Rudy Gobert in 2021. "As you learn more about what someone's doing, you develop a greater understanding. You develop a level of empathy for a certain situation or a certain call. You can see certain things your guys are doing that they can adjust easily to help them."
When Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse was arranging training camp for the Canadian National Team, which he coached in last summer during Olympic qualifiers, he called up Third Side Coaching. Nurse had been introduced to Vaden years earlier while still an assistant in Toronto under Casey and had worked with him on a one-off basis the prior season with the Raptors.
What he needed for the national team group, though, was entirely different.
"Shelley especially had a lot of (international) experience," Nurse recounts. "We were trying to almost put on a seminar for our NBA players who were now playing in FIBA rules for Canada. The challenges, the differences, the similarities.
"For our guys, that was a film session and then we had some scrimmages they helped ref, and all those things to help give our guys a short, three-day minicamp on the difference in the rules and getting used to playing those different rules. It was really outstanding."
Nurse has incorporated elements of Third Side Coaching's approach into his coaching with the Raptors, as well. Their work in certain spatial areas has been particularly notable.
"They talk a lot about angles and positioning, things like that," Nurse said. "Why [a play] can be seen one way depending on the angle I have versus the angle the referee had."
IF YOU'RE A FAN who consumes NBA basketball or its resulting analysis, chances are you've learned a thing or two from Vaden and Russi -- even if you never knew it.
Some of the game's best and most well-known broadcasters regularly lean on them as resources. Mike Breen, a longtime play-by-play analyst and a regular in the NBA Finals, met Vaden while he was an on-court official, and they developed a relationship based on Vaden's desire to keep all parties in the basketball world informed.
"He was always really good about telling us why this happened, or why this was called, or explaining a rule," Breen said. "He just had a great, simplistic way of explaining it where you can understand it."
Breen and Vaden remain close to this day. Breen often calls him after a broadcast that contains a unique or unusual call, just to get insights and ensure he's prepared for the next time.
Bob Rathbun, TV voice of the Hawks for over 25 years, counts Vaden as a friend and the best officiating tool he has access to. Lamar Hurd, the color commentator for the Portland Trail Blazers , drew Vaden's eye with his rules knowledge when Vaden consulted with the Blazers a few years ago, and the two still talk regularly.
"I think that they have given me a deeper understanding of just how much thought and care goes into the job of every single official," said Ryan Ruocco, broadcaster across the NBA and WNBA. "They all have to be Yoda while a burning inferno of Sith are rising around them, if we want to get really deep into a "Star Wars" analogy. They have to be Zen, right? They have to be so technically sound, and they have to do it with the best athletes in the world in a split second."
Ruocco first became familiar with Russi and Vaden while both were still with the WNBA, as part of their efforts to improve media outreach. His passion for getting it right on the broadcast is such that he'll sometimes text one or the other during a commercial break for a game he's calling, just to ensure he can speak accurately about a call.
Assisting broadcasters isn't a lucrative gig for Russi and Vaden. It's a way to build the brand, sure, but it's more than that. They're always looking for methods to increase everyone's knowledge about refereeing -- one of basketball's most important but least talked-about areas.
Third Side Coaching also has become involved in NASCAR, a sport Vaden has deep roots in. He has spent time as a spotter and team manager for various teams over the years. In coordination with Russi's nonprofit, Blast Equality Collab (aimed at fostering diversity and inclusion in officiating and sports), Third Side Coaching sponsors a NASCAR pit crew made up of a diverse staff of up-and-comers..
Russi's message is simple: The themes they teach in officiating apply in many other places. "Refereeing can be a training for your life," she says.
For both, the simple concept of paying it forward is a guiding principle. "I was so fortunate to have the opportunities I had," Vaden says. "To be able now to give back to people, that's really a goal of mine."
Who refs the nba’s referees, the league uses an advanced analytical system to monitor and grade its officials..
By Ben Dowsett
Filed under NBA
Published Feb. 22, 2022
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY EMILY SCHERER / GETTY IMAGES
The concept of constant evolution in sports isn’t exclusive to athletes and tactics. It’s central to the men and women who officiate the games as well.
Referee mechanics — where to stand, how to move, who makes which calls — weren’t taught uniformly in the NBA until the early 1980s , over 30 years into the league’s existence. The use of VCRs and videotapes for referee training wouldn’t begin in earnest until a few years later. The NBA didn’t even begin using three officials in its games full-time until 1988 .
As the world around it has modernized, though, so has the NBA. Today’s league officiating department relies more than ever on a well-known sports buzzword: Analytics.
Every single call made by NBA referees — and many of those not made — is graded by impartial observers, then inputted into a vast database including every official in the league. This data is used in ongoing referee training and development, and it helps in determining ref promotions and playoff assignments. Teams are even given partial access to and are allowed to make some inquiries into specific calls.
This is no mom-and-pop setup. It’s a full-fledged operation involving more than two dozen full-time staffers, from former NBA officials to outside consultants and quantitative analysts. It’s also a realm into which the public has had very little window, even as analytics and technology have become larger and larger parts of the league’s officiating department in recent years.
FiveThirtyEight spoke with more than 25 people across the NBA, from league staffers in charge of data collection and use to front-office executives, to understand exactly how this referee-grading and analytics program works.
Many an NBA fan recognizes Secaucus, New Jersey, as home to the league’s Replay Center, but that’s just one small piece of league and referee operations taking place there. Secaucus is also the NBA’s hub for its referee review and grading program, which employs a staff of over 25 people in various roles.
A key figure here is Steven Angel, one of the NBA’s longest-tenured employees at nearly 14 years. Angel was part of a consulting firm that helped redesign the league’s referee data in the early 2000s when David Stern was commissioner; he was eventually brought on full-time as part of the officiating department, now occupying the role of senior vice president of game analytics and strategy.
When Angel started working with the league, the sophistication of referee reviews and grading systems matched the limited technology that was available. Around the turn of the millennium, the NBA started assigning observers to attend games in-person in their geographical area, then return home and break the same game down again via DVR later that night. Angel, with his consulting background, noticed potential problems with training and arena biases, and the system was brought entirely in-house in 2013.
When the NBA brass decided to begin sharing referee game grades and reports with individual franchises in 2015, they quickly realized that many teams were focused on different call and play types than the league’s own referee advisers — understandable given that teams have their own interests at heart, while advisers are focused on leaguewide referee performance. Standardizing these definitions across the board became a major piece of Angel’s department, one that persists to this day under the title of “Rules Clarity Project.”
Those involved work directly with the NBA’s competition committee — which comprises a group of owners, general managers, coaches, referees and players — plus representatives from all 30 teams and the referee’s union. Angel sums up the aim of this project simply: “What actually constitutes an error? The game is one long non-call, except when the whistle is blowing,” Angel told FiveThirtyEight. “Can we agree on what constitutes a foul?”
Angel’s team also handles the realm of integrity. It looks for any and all possible indicators of bias, whether conscious or subconscious. The name “ Donaghy ” is rarely uttered in league circles today, but there’s an obvious desire to protect against even the suggestion of impropriety — especially given the NBA’s own stated interest in the arena of sports gambling.
“We monitor gambling lines in Las Vegas,” Angel said. “We look to see if there’s any indication of manipulation or bias. That is hopefully a big, big waste of time, but we are still diligent in that effort.”
The biggest element Angel oversees, though, is the NBA’s staff of dedicated referee reviewers.
While certain roles in the league’s officiating department are held by former referees, game reviewers are not — again, the goal here is limiting any potential for bias. Rather, Angel and his staff look for “basketball-centric individuals” who have coached or played at some level and have a strong baseline of knowledge but don’t have specific connections with NBA franchises.
In the early years of this program, applicants for game reviewer jobs were given tests on their basketball acumen. Quickly, though, the league realized those tests were asking the wrong questions.
“We believe we can teach what [reviewers] need to look at,” Angel said. “What we need to find in them is the ability to sit and focus for long periods of time.”
Reviewing NBA referees is an arduous, painstaking task. Doing the job correctly might require watching the same three-second play clip over a dozen times at numerous angles. A single game review takes between six and eight hours, per multiple members of the department. Dedication and focus are just as important as actual basketball knowledge.
The interview process today is more focused on these sorts of skills. These are prestigious roles: The NBA’s staff of game reviewers numbers 15 at most, including 10 standard reviewers, three senior reviewers and a couple of specialized roles (such as one reviewer dedicated solely to gambling lines and related integrity concepts).
Game reviewers are trained on three specific components of the job:
- How to grade plays: What constitutes an infraction vs. what doesn’t? Which types of plays need to be included on game reports?
- Which ref is responsible: Reviewers grade whether an infraction took place, but also which referee on the floor was responsible for making (or not making) that call. This involves a detailed knowledge of NBA referee mechanics for each of the three positions an official occupies on the floor ( lead, slot and trail ).
- Use of the Game Review System technology.
The Game Review System, or GRS, is the technological foundation of modern NBA referee grading, one designed in-house and updated several times since the mid-2000s. The goal is to present reviewers with a standardized dashboard they access via computer, with processes that can be applied as evenly as possible to every single NBA game.
Again, there’s major emphasis here on which plays are included. The league could demand reviewers break down every single dribble in each game, labeling “no infraction” each time a player successfully moved without traveling; while that might allow the NBA to claim 99.99 percent accuracy on all call types, it wouldn’t be a feasible use of reviewer time — and the resulting data would be almost useless.
Instead, reviewers get a major assist here from modern technology: Second Spectrum camera tracking, which is present in all 29 NBA arenas, is integrated into GRS. This data is used to “pre-tag” various common events in a basketball game, such as shots, passes, drives, screens and dribble initiations. Instead of manually combing through every second of game action, hemming and hawing on which plays to cover and which to leave alone, reviewers have a standardized shorthand they can lean on.
Generally speaking, reviewers can categorize — or “tag” — a play in one of four ways:
- Infraction: An infraction of NBA rules clearly took place on the play in question.
- No Infraction: An infraction of NBA rules clearly did not take place.
- Potential Infraction: The call was not clear or conclusive. Two sub-categories, “Leaning Infraction” and “Leaning No Infraction,” are included in these “judgment calls” to make eventual datasets more robust.
- Enhanced Review: A conclusive decision on a call could have been reached only using enhanced video review and could not have been reasonably seen by a referee in real time. For instance, the league won’t punish a referee for missing a travel on a play in which slow-motion video revealed that a player lifted his pivot foot milliseconds before the ball left his hand for a dribble.
Reviewers have access to a minimum of nine broadcast angles for every play, plus often several additional views — and a full suite of video enhancement options at their disposal. In addition to entering one of those four tags for each play, reviewers also use video to determine which referee on the court should have been responsible. (Tracking technology also often plays a role in this task.)
A collaborative spirit is encouraged. Reviewers are in the same physical location in Secaucus and often canvass one another or senior staffers on tough plays. (COVID-19 protocols have interrupted parts of this in-person coordination over the past two seasons.)
After six to eight hours, a reviewer will have analyzed a single NBA game and all possible infractions within it. This process will often then be repeated by a senior reviewer on the staff; hundreds of NBA games each season each get 12 to 16 hours of review.
Each call and non-call will be automatically assigned to the referees who worked that game and compared to the reviewers’ tags. (It’s important to note, again, that reviewers are evaluating infractions , not referees themselves. Their job is to focus solely on the players on the court and whether rules were broken during the course of play; to avoid bias as much as possible, resulting grades are assigned to officials later and by other league staff.) This allows for corresponding accuracy to be determined. From here, this data will become part of each official’s existing record. Leaguewide, this dataset is massive: A single season will include around 500,000 refereeing data points, per Evan Wasch, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics.
Wasch oversees Angel’s department, which includes a group of data scientists whose role involves combing through this data in excruciating detail. They’re looking for trends across individual refs and and throughout the staff, among players and teams, and even within betting patterns. Wasch’s team will then work with other key NBA officials — including Monty McCutchen, senior vice president for referee development and training, and Mark Wunderlich, vice president of referee operations — on what they find.
This data analysis will often have a direct effect on ongoing referee training. For example, as the game has undergone a spacing revolution in the last decade, officiating analysts began noticing related positioning issues.
“[As] the game became more perimeter-oriented, we found that we were seeing errors in different places on the floor,” Wasch tells FiveThirtyEight. “Which in turn led us to work with Monty and Mark Wunderlich and his staff to rethink referee mechanics to make sure referees were in the right position to pick up plays.”
Again, collaboration is key. Wasch and his staff are regularly embedded in meetings and training sessions with Wunderlich’s group. If data can identify or strengthen an important training area for a single ref, a group of refs or even every ref in the league, all the better.
And they even review their own reviewers! Data is kept on how often senior review staff is forced to overrule an improper tag from an initial review upon their second pass; Angel and his staff address any error trends that show up here. If the issues persist, a reviewer might have to find a new job.
Coming Wednesday: How the ref-grading data is used by the league and its teams.
CORRECTION (Feb. 22, 2022, 3:27 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized the department within the NBA that handles game analytics. It includes a group of data scientists who sift through the ref data looking for trends.
Ben Dowsett is a writer and videographer based in Salt Lake City. His past NBA work can be found at ESPN, GQ, The Athletic and elsewhere. @Ben_Dowsett
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Week 4 referee assignments
Craig Wrolstad and his crew work the first international game of the season
This week begins the first of the International Series games, as the Falcons visit the Jaguars second home in London. It will be the 10th game that the Jaguars play in England. Referee Craig Wrolstad will take his crew across the pond for that game.
There is a Toy Story themed alternate broadcast of the London game and the Manningcast for the Monday night game.
Below are the assignments that have been confirmed, and we will add as we get more information.
Thursday, Sep. 28
- Lions at Packers Prime — Alan Eck
Sunday, Oct. 1
- Alternate broadcast Disney+
- Ravens at Browns — Brad Allen
- Bengals at Titans — Shawn Smith
- Broncos at Bears — Carl Cheffers
- Rams at Colts — Land Clark
- Dolphins at Bills — Adrian Hill
- Vikings at Panthers — Tra Blake
- Steelers at Texans — Bill Vinovich
- Buccaneers at Saints — Shawn Hochuli
- Commanders at Eagles — Ron Torbert
- Raiders at Chargers — John Hussey
- Cardinals at 49ers — Clete Blakeman
- Patriots at Cowboys — Scott Novak
- Chiefs at Jets NBC Peacock — Alex Kemp
Monday, Oct. 2
- Alternate broadcast ESPN 2
Injury ends the season for down judge Derick Bowers
Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules ( on sale now )
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September 26, 2023 at 8:17 pm
Where are the Rest of the Assignments
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Week 3 photo album, 2023
Week 3 officiating liveblog
Rules review video: Safeties, replay calling penalties, and kicks over the uprights
‘Exceptional situational awareness’ highlights the Call of the Week
Week 3 referee assignments
Week 2 photo album, 2023
Week 2 officiating liveblog
Rules review video: Intentional grounding, targeting, and horse-collar tackles
Great whistle discipline through 2 fumbles is the Call of the Week
NFL targeting a game in Madrid in 2024
Referee assignments, preseason week 3
Week 1 referee assignments
Preseason referee auditions are back
Week 2 referee assignments
Referee assignments, preseason week 2.
Ghost edit to the rulebook redefines a safety via intentional grounding
Adrian Hill is assigned to the Hall of Fame Game
Referee Reggie Smith retires to join NBC
Officiating crews for the 2023 season
Rules review video: Replays after a penalty, duplicate numbers, and blindside blocks
Rules review video: Targeting, consecutive timeouts, and drones
Rules review video: getting away with feigning injury, late subs, and receivers out of bounds
Rules review video: unusual fair-catch situation, new low-block rule, and a fumble into the pylon
Focusing on the onside kick formation is the call of the week.
3-dimensional call at the goal line is the Call of the Week
Close-call on a potential walk-off safety is the call of the week.
Watching for the #ToeDragSwag is the Call of the Week
Pro Football Network
NFL Referee Assignments Week 3: Refs Assigned for Each NFL Game This Week
Every week, it seems that one or another of the NFL referees find themselves in the eye of frustration for fans, players, and coaches alike. Heading into Week 3 of the 2023 season, what are the NFL referee assignments across the remaining 15 games?
NFL Referee Assignments for Week 3
All times Eastern and game day Sunday unless stated.
Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens | 1 p.m.
Tennessee Titans at Cleveland Browns | 1 p.m.
Atlanta Falcons at Detroit Lions | 1 p.m.
New Orleans Saints at Green Bay Packers | 1 p.m.
Houston Texans at Jacksonville Jaguars | 1 p.m.
Denver Broncos at Miami Dolphins | 1 p.m.
Los Angeles Chargers at Minnesota Vikings | 1 p.m.
New England Patriots at New York Jets | 1 p.m.
Buffalo Bills at Washington Commanders | 1 p.m.
Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks | 4:05 p.m.
Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals | 4:25 p.m.
Chicago Bears at Kansas City Chiefs | 4:25 p.m.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Las Vegas Raiders | 8:20 p.m.
Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers | 7:15 p.m. (Mon)
Los Angeles Rams at Cincinnati Bengals | 8:15 p.m. (Mon)
When we look at the referee stats entering Week 3, one thing stands out immediately. Tra Blake, who is in charge of Sunday Night Football, has averaged 19.5 flags per game and 17.5 accepted penalties per game through the first two weeks.
In the game between the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans in Week 1, they had a whopping 24 flags thrown and 22 penalties. That could lead to a very stop-and-start game on national TV to close out Sunday.
In the second game of Monday Night Football, we could have the opposite situation as John Hussey and his crew take command. Hussey’s group is averaging just 11 flags per game and seven accepted penalties per game. In the other MNF game, Adrian Hill’s crew threw a total of 16 flags per game with 12.5 accepted penalties.
The Dallas Cowboys may be a touch nervous entering this week. Alex Kemp’s crew is averaging double the number of penalties against road teams (10) than home teams (five). That is also something that the Philadelphia Eagles should watch on MNF. Hill’s crew is averaging 8.5 penalties per game against the road team and four per game on the home team.
MORE: NFL Standings
Of course, basing analysis on just two weeks is not a great idea. At this stage, we have no idea if the records are based on the team’s discipline or the tendencies of the officiating crews. Even looking back to previous seasons is tough because officiating crews change from year to year.
Each season, officials are assigned to referees from the NFL’s officiating roster . You can see the full crews for the 2023 season in our handy guide.
SEC announces 2023-24 Men's Basketball TV Schedule
19 hours ago.
Birmingham, Ala. - The Southeastern Conference unveiled the television networks and start times for its 2023-24 men's basketball schedule on Thursday.
All games on ESPN platforms (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, SEC Network, and ESPN+/SECN+) are available through the ESPN App, which is accessible via connected devices. CBS Sports' coverage will air on CBS and also be available to stream live on Paramount+, with additional coverage on CBSSports.com and CBS Sports HQ.
Conference play tips off Saturday, January 6, and runs through Saturday, March 9. Each SEC team plays the other 13 teams at least one time during league play. They will then play their three permanent opponents a second time with the remaining two games changing annually. This is the first season since 2012 that teams will receive a bye during the league schedule. All byes will take place between Jan. 23 and Feb. 21.
The SEC Tournament returns to Nashville, Tenn., as Bridgestone Arena will host the event from March 13-17, 2024.
A record-tying 10 SEC teams received postseason bids. The SEC's eight NCAA Tournament selections tied its previous best set in 2018. Additionally, two SEC teams competed in the National Invitation Tournament. The SEC has had 35 NCAA Tournament selections over the last five tournaments.
Open Cup Final Assignment is Milestone on Jon Freemon’s Referee Journey
As the referee for the 2023 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final, Jon Freemon realizes he will have his hands full with one of the most important domestic soccer games of the year.
Throw in the best-known player in the world vying for his second major championship on American soil within 39 days and the stakes get even higher.
On Wednesday, Sept. 27, Lionel Messi and Inter Miami will take to the DRV PNK Stadium pitch against the Houston Dynamo to battle for the oldest trophy in all of competitive U.S. sports (8:30 p.m. ET on Telemundo, Universo, CBS Sports Network, Paramount+, Peacock).
The 34-year-old native of Olathe, Kan. was humbled when he learned that he would work the middle in what will be the biggest game of his burgeoning officiating career.
"Anytime you get considered to be a part of a tournament, it's a big honor," he told ussoccer.com. "Then multiply that times 100 when you get considered for the final and then multiply that times 1,000 when you actually are selected for the final.
"We don't have very many professional finals in our country. Being part of the oldest tournament in our country from a soccer standpoint is just an absurd honor. As you may know, this final might look a little different than past finals, with the amount of attention that it's going to pull. So, we're going to do our best to take that pressure and just manifest it into a really strong performance from the referee crew."
Like many game officials, Freemon wants to be part of the background.
"Referees don't want the storyline to be about us," he added. "We want it to be about the players, the game itself, how exciting it was for the fans to be a part of it. That's going to be our goal, to just provide a really strong performance and then none of the attention will be on us. That's usually the goal for us. I’m super excited to be part of it."
Messi's presence puts the confrontation into another orbit. After all, he is the captain of Argentina, the defending FIFA World Cup champions, and since arriving in the States this summer he has been attracting huge crowds and interest every time Miami has played.
Freemon understood that there would be pressure on the officiating crew.
"As officials we definitely feel pressure, with all the media outlets, and all the attention that our league is getting now," he said. "We've got so many more eyeballs than we did even a year ago. So, to say that I don't feel the pressure at all, would be a fib. But I've done this now a few times where I've gotten pretty good at turning that pressure and just focusing it on the performance itself. At the end of the day, it's another match. The job is about the same. There's just going to be more people watching. We just try and keep it in that perspective."
Freemon was introduced to refereeing because of his involvement with another sport. When he played for a baseball team as a 13-year-old, one of the players' fathers suggested the team try officiating another sport. Freemon, who also played soccer, decided to become certified as a referee.
"After the announcement came out about this assignment, my mom sent me a text, 'This is the best $40 that I've ever spent,' " Freemon said. "She refuses to take the $40 back and she doesn't let me live it down. I just live with it."
Freemon started with recreational games.
"Every game blue versus red," he said. "I only had to have one yellow shirt and a whistle. It was great. It was probably 15 bucks a game, less than an hour of work. That was heaven at that time.
- MORE: Become a U.S. Soccer Referee
"You feel like you're on top of the world. You feel like you can afford all of the dollar hamburgers that you and your friends want to get. There wasn't a lot of pressure at that time. Everyone was there to have fun. Parents didn't really yell."
Slowly, but surely, Freemon moved up the officiating ladder, working youth travel games in such leagues as the Heartland Soccer Association. Then came amateur matches and the Premier Development League (now USL League Two). In 2019, he was in the middle of the 2019 USL League One final before working the 2021 MLS Eastern Conference final as a Video Assistant Referee.
There must be something in the water in Olathe, Kan. because two U.S. match officials were raised there. Kyle Atkins, who worked as the Offside Video Assistant Referee at the 2022 FIFA World Cup Final in Qatar, also hails from the Kansas City suburb.
"Would you believe it if I told you we grew up a mile away from each other and didn't know it at the time?" Freemon said.
While climbing the U.S. Soccer officiating ladder back in the day, they worked together on many occasions, Freemon in the middle and Atkins as an assistant referee.
"Throughout our referee journey, he's basically like my brother,” Freemon said. “To see his journey from where it started to, literally all the way to the World Cup Final. It's been a treat to be a small part of that."