The Phantom Foul That Introduced Me To Conspiracy Theories
12:10 PM EDT on October 5, 2021
Welcome to Infinite Replay, a recurring feature about the plays we can’t stop seeing over and over and over again.
On April 1, 2002, the Maryland men’s basketball team beat Indiana 64-52 to win the NCAA Championship for the first time in university history. It was a triumph, and as an almost-9-year-old with Terps-crazed older brothers and a personal attachment to senior Lonny Baxter (my twin sister’s first initial combined with mine to form his nickname, LB, which he had tattooed on his arm—very cool) I identified it as such. That Maryland crew—Baxter, Juan Dixon, Byron Mouton, Chris Wilcox, Steve Blake, Tahj Holden—was one of the first teams I actually knew, along with a few losing early-aughts Orioles teams, and their win was my first taste of sports glory. If I think about it, I can recall Dixon slingshotting the ball into the air at the final buzzer, coach Gary Williams celebrating with his grandson, the team hoisting the trophy.
But the moment that managed to lodge itself in my brain wasn’t from the Terps’ championship game or their title run at all. The play, if you can call it that, that’s stuck with me over the years happened in the waning minutes of the Terps’ Final Four loss one year earlier. It helped torpedo the Terps’ chances in the game, but its significance in my sports-watching comes from the fact that it introduced me to the idea that referees, perhaps, were not mere neutral arbiters of sport, and that, maybe, there existed unseen forces working behind the scenes to achieve a certain desired result. At the very least, it made clear that there existed people who believed that there existed unseen forces working behind the scenes to achieve a certain desired result, and this was fascinating. You could say, without much overstatement, that the refs calling a phantom fifth foul on Lonny Baxter with 2:49 left in Maryland’s tight semifinal against the vile Duke was my first experience with conspiracy thinking.
Here’s what happened: After leading by 22, Maryland trailed 79-84 with just under three minutes remaining. As Blake brought the ball up the court, Baxter was backing down Duke’s Carlos Boozer in the low post. After what people who were present have described as incidental contact, the whistle blew. Boozer, also carrying four fouls, resignedly put up his hands, clearly thinking the foul was called on him. But it went the other way: offensive foul on Baxter. He fell to his knees in shock; the CBS announcers hastily corrected themselves. Williams was enraged. He yelled in protest, lipless and sputtering, and was later quoted as screaming at Big East commissioner and the chairman of the tournament selection committee Mike Tranghese, who was seated at the scorer's table, “How bad do you guys want Duke in the final?” Maryland lost 95-84. Duke would go on to beat Arizona to win the title.
The contemporaneous tournament post-mortems focused on the refereeing. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that, yes, the officiating was bad and, yes, Duke gets the calls. But that’s just the star-player treatment at work, which is normal and not evidence of a conspiracy, and so everyone should get over it.
The Associated Press wrote:
Basketball officials insist a foul is a foul, whether it happens in some start-of-season game or in the NCAA Tournament. There was a buzz around the Final Four, though, that if the foul involves Duke, the Blue Devils will get the benefit of the call.
The Los Angeles Times columnist Chris Dufresne explained:
Duke gets the benefit of the doubt because it is a fundamentally sound team with respected and respectful players and coaches.
Don’t kid yourselves: great teams and players always have received preferential treatment.
But officials know the score. They know the good guys from the bad guys and, in coaching, the winners from the whiners.
Referees appreciate superior play and sportsmanship. Subconsciously, you could argue, they want star players in the game at the end.
Daily Press columnist David Teel also disavowed “a vast zebra conspiracy orchestrated by the NCAA and CBS, if not the FBI, CIA, KGB and IRS.” However, Teel wrote:
I do concede that Saturday's Maryland-Duke game was poorly officiated. Two of the three officials, Mark Reischling and Ted Hillary, were Final Four rookies. The third, David Libbey, was working his sixth Final Four.
Regardless, they were bad. The fifth foul on Maryland center Lonny Baxter was a joke, leaving Terps coach Gary Williams at wit's end.
That Duke gets preferential treatment from the refs is one of the most popular and enduring arguments in college basketball. In 2005, Washington Post columnist Norman Chad did his Norman Chad thing, writing:
Duke gets all the calls.
(Duke players don't get into foul trouble, they get into fellowship programs.)
Duke gets all the calls.
(I once saw a Duke player, on a snowmobile, plow into a family of six crossing a street — the family of six was ticketed for jaywalking.)
Duke gets all the calls.
(If Martha Stewart had played for Duke, she wouldn't have done jail time, she would've been second team all-ACC.)
In 2009, after Duke won another pair of games following questionable referee decisions (most notably refs ignoring Jon Scheyer’s blatant travel in the final seconds of a three-point game against Virginia Tech), Sports Illustrated published a “mythbusters” piece attempting to use stats and logic to disprove the claim that Duke gets preferential treatment from the refs. The article runs through some basic statistical analysis that endeavors to show that the foul discrepancy between Duke and its opponents is not significant, before settling on this explanation:
The whole point of Coach K's offense is to create situations in which his players get fouled. In the motion offense that Duke uses so effectively, players dribble penetrate, draw a help defender, then dish to the open man, who either scores or is fouled. The whole point of the offense is to get to the foul line so, of course, the Blue Devils' opponents are going to have more fouls called on them.
Then, in 2015, while on a press tour for his ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, noted Duke villain Christian Laettner even said he thought the refs were biased.
“Especially at Cameron, they do get some of those calls,” Laettner said. “But when it’s a neutral gym or opposing, it’s not quite as bad. But there are times where I’m even like ‘Jeez, did we get this much of a benefit of the doubt from the refs when I was playing?’ And everyone says yes.”
For me, this all came later. As a kid in 2001, I was just kind of confused about the Baxter call and I can’t say I dwelled on it. I don’t think I was aware that Maryland occupied something of a little-brother role in the ACC, dwarfed by legendary programs like Duke and UNC, and harbored something of an inferiority complex as a result. I hadn’t yet considered and rejected the “star treatment bias” explanation as exculpatory. I certainly hadn’t yet realized that refs are cops. Plus, when Maryland won the following year, the victory delivered an extra kick of satisfaction, the kind that comes from having been wronged and coming out on top anyhow. But Baxter’s fifth foul comes to mind whenever there’s a particularly shifty call. Occasionally, it’ll fling me back into light conspiracy theorizing: What if a bad call isn’t just a bad call? Who are these refs? Who stands to gain what? How do you prove a negative? Tim Donaghy? Did Jeffrey Epstein actually kill himself??
I wish I could say I clearly remember where I was or who I was with or what I was thinking while watching the end of that tourney game (if only to have a tidy end to this essay). I was probably sprawled on the floor in the living room with one of my older brothers and my sister. (Another of my older brothers tells me he wasn’t there because he was at his confirmation retreat: “I went into mass euphoric with the Terps up 22 and then when I came out they had lost. Devastating.”) I wish I could say that I identified in those few dumb seconds an example of bias at work, or potentially at work. In actuality, the moment grew meaning over time, a nagging memory that gained significance as I gained awareness: An example of the tyranny of the favorite, the establishment, the status quo—or at least the perceived tyranny of such. It’s this ambiguity that’s kept an otherwise meaningless college basketball play lodged in my brain alongside other petty half-held grudges and partially formed theories about How Things Work. Calling the foul against Baxter was, my rational self says, just a terrible call, an honest mistake, the kind that happens all the time in sports. But ... what if it wasn’t?
Indulging in this kind of thinking is admittedly less appealing to me now given the tenor of prevailing conspiracy thinking in mainstream American culture, but it’s still healthy to be skeptical of the powers that be, and those arbiters charged with maintaining them. Especially when Duke is involved.
Correction (10/8/21): A previous version of this post misspelled Carlos Boozer as Carl Boozer, a very silly error which we regret.