After four short years, Major General Ronald L. Johnson officially resigned from his position as the Vice President of Referee Operations it was reported by the NBA on Thursday. All I can say in my best LeBron James impersonation is ‘it’s about damn time’. Oh wait, is that MAJOR GENERAL Ronald Johnson, as in an Army combat engineer who served the US military for 32 years? Well we can’t possibly criticize this person can we? Well maybe we can, and maybe we should.
First let’s take a look under what light Ronald Johnson got the job in the first place. It was the summer of 2008 with basketball months away on hiatus and the single biggest story at the time was the allegation by the crooked Tim Donaghy that multiple NBA games, including critical playoff matches, had been fixed. David Stern stepped in, in his usual cool and collected manner that would make event the best of Bond villains jealous with envy. So how the heck did Stern calm the fury that had engulfed the situation – simple, put a respected military man in charge of the position to instantly silence any criticism and complaints.
It didn’t matter that Johnson had no clue about officiating, admitting himself upon taking the job that “I don’t know that anything needs to be fixed”. Even Stern himself said that he doesn’t want the person in charge of refereeing “to know anything about refereeing”. Read that sentence again. Let’s not forget that his job duties did involve refereeing matters like being responsible for all aspects of the NBA’s officiating program, including recruiting, training and development, scheduling, data management and analysis, and work rules enforcement. It was meant to sound as a positive so that some fresh blood could enter the refereeing aspect that had garnered so much criticism, but really, was that a fair meritocracy based decision or was it just a PR move to get some heat off the league. You decide for yourself.
So after four years what exactly did General Johnson accomplish.Lamell McMorris, the spokesman and lead negotiator for the referees union, was quoted as saying Johnson’s challenges would include addressing “poor vision, a lack of focus and direction, mixed messaging, a flawed evaluation system, a misguided reliance on statistical analysis to measure performance, blatant favoritism, and a dispirited and demoralized staff”. Did General Johnson really address all these issues, well if you ask Johnson personally, he believes he accomplished plenty. ‘When I was hired, Commissioner Stern asked me to apply my military and engineering background to improve the management processes and methods of an already superior officiating program,’ Johnson said. ‘I feel I have accomplished that mission and, with great pride in having led the best referees in the world, I am ready to move on to my next challenge”.
But if you look at the state of refereeing today it’s as bad as it’s ever been. Some mistakes in the playoffs this year have been so bad that the NBA had to openly admit their error that openly cost some team’s their shot at the Larry O’Brien trophy. We won’t mention the missed call in Game 2 of the Finals, or the foul discrepancy in that series and we certainly won’t go as far as suggesting General Johnson saw his mission accomplished when LeBron finally won his first ring – don’t worry we got a better conspiracy than that. But isn’t it a bit strange that he ‘resigned’ after only four years, when he must have finally gotten comfortable in the world of officiating. Was General Johnson really that eager to ‘move on to his next challenge’ at nearly 60 years of age. Is there really that many jobs paying better dollars than the NBA for a retired army vet?
So let’s get down to what we think really happened. The NBA finally made everyone forget about the Tim Donaghy scandal and therefore had no more use for Ronald Johnson, who was probably way over his head with the job in the first place. The NBA is a complex and fast growing sport requiring constant change and a good understanding of all the moving parts. Something as basic as ‘flopping’ can instantly rise to the top of the list of things that need attention propelled by replays posted on YouTube, shared throughout Twitter, and picked up by media like ESPN who have made it the game’s number 1 enemy despite the dark art existing for many years. Was General Johnson on top of the flopping situation and did he have anything in his military training that would help in tackling such a problem? Probably not. David Stern has been clear in recent months that the NBA will address flopping in the future as well as other major gripes of fans that are fast coming to light. ESPN has a major area of their site dedicated to ‘HoopIdea’ – where a bunch of ideas to improve the game and specifically officiating are suggested. For all the criticism thrown David Stern’s way, he has always had a good feel for the vibe of the basketball community and has been open minded about adapting new technologies and systems.
From all angles, it looks like the NBA simply had no more use for someone of a military background and are deciding to dump him in place for someone younger, more creative, more flexible, and more in tune with the challenges facing the game in the coming years.