A July 4 weekend may be the wrong time to recommend that an American look to the U.K. for some lessons in rebellion and liberty. But as the NCAA delivered a one-game tournament suspension to Baylor's Kim Mulkey for mouthing off about officials, she should have tapped one of Sir Alex Ferguson's advisers for help, if only to borrow a single quote.
Back in 2011, when Manchester United's manager drew a five-match suspension for maligning officials, his proxy, Graham Bean, delivered a proper slagging to the Football Association: "The FA has become like a communist state in the way that you cannot speak out against authority. It is becoming clear that if you are in football you give up your right to freedom of expression. ''
The rhetoric vaulted past reason. No one locked up Sir Alex, who willingly surrendered certain freedoms every time he cashed a paycheck from his Premier League employers. But the rebuke demanded savoring. It was a reminder of how submissive even we, the erstwhile revolutionaries across the pond, have become on the muffling of complaints about officiating.
We smile knowingly when a player or coach says: "I'd better not say anything or I'll hear from the commissioner's office.'' We speculate on the size of the fine when someone goes over the edge. We look at Mulkey and think she should have known better. After all, she had been reprimanded for past complaints about referees.
But if the gag orders protect refs and the integrity of a sport, it's hard to see how. They make officials appear weak and incapable of withstanding open scrutiny.
They mask the fact that a lot of coaches and athletes refuse to complain after a game simply because they think it's pathetic, almost contemptible. We're led to assume the stoics remain silent simply because they want to duck a fine.
The prohibition on criticism also has the perverse effect of validating the complainer, elevating whining to an act of courage and petty complaints to legitimate concerns.
Punishing Mulkey makes her a martyr in miniature. She didn't back down. She fought for her players despite the cost. The ghost of Henry David Thoreau is doing a "we are not worthy'' bow in the direction of Waco.
Tom Thibodeau recently paid $35,000 for the luxury of complaining that his Bulls weren't getting calls in the playoffs. He must have thought it was worth the price. The fines, as they always do, created a 2-for-1 deal. The comments got media attention when delivered and again when punished.
In 2010, Phil Jackson racked up a pair of $35,000 fines in less than two weeks. In his case, the punishment probably acted as accelerant more than deterrent.
By the end of his coaching career, Jackson must have budgeted for his fines as if they were mortgage payments on a mountain cabin. His intransigence so vexed David Stern that the commissioner threatened to start suspending coaches in the middle of the playoffs for "corrosive'' commentary about the refs.
The saber-rattling just made Stern seem helpless. If he had followed through, the absence of a head coach in a playoff game would have called more attention to the officiating, instead of bringing it closer to the ideal of invisibility.
The theory that coaches can "work'' officials is entirely legitimate. The idea that they accomplish it through the media, rather than on the court, is comical. If officials bend to Jackson's will, it's more because they know they're dealing with a winner of 11 championship rings, the shaman to Kobe and Michael, than because Jackson filled up some desperate reporters' tape recorders with musings about Kevin Durant as a whistle magnet.
Before Sir Alex retired from Man U. this spring, he had become known for accruing "Fergie time,'' suspiciously generous allotments of extra seconds added to games when his team trailed. A BBC study last year lent some credence to the theory. But no one suggests that "Fergie time'' had anything to do with the manager's tendency to castigate officials in the media. He knew how to intimidate on the pitch and he had 13 Premier League and two Champions League titles to back up every word.
Likewise, Mulkey's ranting during the Sweet 16 loss to Louisville did more to bully officials and degrade her sport than anything she said later, while seated at a carefully draped dais with a name card in front of her microphone. But the NCAA news service account of the suspension does not mention her on-court theatrics as a factor in the decision. The explanation says: "Specifically, Mulkey made disparaging comments about the officials during the postgame press conference.''
Officials already seem pretty impervious to the worst homicidal-rage acts on the sidelines, so it's not clear why postgame spitballs should hurt them more. Good refs and umpires can handle the scrutiny. They need protection from menacing behavior on the field and courts. They don't need Papa Bears Stern, Selig, Emmert and Goodell to stifle their critics.
Given a chance, more freedom of expression might lead to less postgame complaining. Instead of paying off league headquarters, chronic whiners would have to answer to their peers' disdain, which could more than fill any void left by repealed penalties.
Most athletes learn a no-excuses ethic early on. It should be a hallmark of the sports industry, something that sells tickets and jerseys. But authority figures prefer to serve up canned principles rather than letting the organic versions flourish.
When Jon Gruden took over the Raiders in the late '90s, he realized that the club's paranoid conspiracy theories had become a crutch for everyone involved. He rigorously banned complaints about officiating, and even after the "Tuck Rule'' playoff game in New England, Gruden insisted that the Raiders should have converted a 3rd-and-1 before the play that launched the Patriots' dynasty. His quarterback, Rich Gannon, held fast to the same belief.
Gruden would probably not have been fined for complaining about the call or bashing the section of the rulebook that made it possible. If he had been, Al Davis would have happily found a way to cover every dime. (The two were less than a year away from their acrimonious split.) But he focused only on his team's failure.
"Sure, if you coach, play or root for the Raiders, you can be all teary-eyed about the 'tuck rule,' but I wasn't going to put that one on the officials,'' Gruden later wrote in his 2004 autobiography. "You make the first down, the game's over. We got stuffed. … As I've always been taught, you get what you deserve.''
Now transplanted from the sidelines to the TV booth, Gruden has since said: "That's the worst call in NFL history.'' He eventually signed a picture for Patriots owner Robert Kraft with the phrase "It was a fumble.''
But as a coach, Gruden couldn't afford to take that position. He would have paid more than any fine the NFL could have levied. He had invested too much in making the Raiders accept full responsibility for their fate. His authority would have evaporated.