Probe of ref is a gut shot to the NBA
Saturday, July 21, 2007
David Stern's worst nightmare as NBA commissioner has just come true. The FBI is investigating whether one of the league's referees bet on games, including ones he officiated, and his possible connection to organized crime.
Friday's news that Tim Donaghy, a 13-year journeyman official, was being investigated to determine if he wagered on games and made calls that affected point spreads was a monumental fist to a sport already dealing with its full measure of troublesome issues.
It is potentially more damaging to basketball than the Barry Bonds debates are to baseball and more disturbing, at least for many fans, than even the Michael Vick dog-abuse case. This is sport's last true vulnerability -- the concept that the games might be crooked, that the only thing that binds all fans together has been compromised.
It also brings into doubt the idea that the games are officiated fairly and as accurately as possible, because basketball is the sport that requires the most judgments per minute of action of any sport, and is therefore the one most vulnerable to chicanery.
Donaghy is a second-tier NBA official. He'd been in the league more than a decade but worked only 20 playoff games, five this past season (one of them was Game 3 of the Warriors-Dallas Mavericks series, which Golden State won 109-91). Thus, all the Internet conspiracy freaks who threw out dozens of names and cited hundreds of games will have a difficult time finding Donaghy's alleged footprints on games of import, because he didn't seem to work in that many.
His last game was Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals between ultimate champion San Antonio and Phoenix, which the Spurs won 108-101. It is unknown if that is one of the games under suspicion (the Spurs were favored by 4). Meanwhile, out in the Wild West of the Internet, one gaming Web site, Webwire.com, claimed Donaghy's games end up "over the Las Vegas total points line 57 percent of the time," an unusually high number that proves nothing but suggests way too much.
The suggestion alone leads to the great unmentioned weakness of any sport -- the idea there are lots of games out there for the fixing, and that some get fixed. College football has had its recent scandals (Northwestern in the mid-'90s, most notably), college basketball as well (Arizona State in the late '90s). College sports are particularly vulnerable, because the players are either not paid or paid illegally at less than market rate.
The professional leagues' stance for their competitive sanctity had always been that the money was so good the players would never be tempted to gamble on games. The money is that good, but players get caught in more exotic and disturbing ways, and their real collateral when the money gets tight is the game.
Officials have always been considered vulnerable because they aren't paid nearly as well (NBA referees make from a low of $90,000 to a high of $225,000). That is great money by most standards, but temptation is still temptation, and vice is still vice, and human judgment is still human judgment.
In other words, if this FBI investigation produces what it purports to, Donaghy was tempted by vice, his judgment was compromised and he got squeezed in a most vulnerable way -- his work product.
Which brings us back to Stern, and his league's tarnished image this year.
There were the low television ratings for both the regular season and the playoffs, which the league tried to slough off by redefining what good ratings actually are. There was the infamous Joey Crawford-Tim Duncan on-court argument that caused Crawford, one of the game's best officials, to be suspended for the duration of the season. There was the study by an academic and a graduate students purportedly showing evidence of racial bias in the volume of calls made against African American players as opposed to other ethnic groups. There was the All-Star Game in Las Vegas, which was cited by a number of observers as a weekend of debauchery and lawlessness that rebounded, largely without merit, back to the NBA and its African American clientele.
Stern, the NBA's undisputed leader for the past 23 years, has in recent times behaved more like a dean of privileged students trying to regain classroom control than a commissioner. Dress codes, more technicals for dissent, a general shrinking of tolerance for the talent has all been noticed.
But the Donaghy investigation changes everything. Stern now faces an audience that won't be so willing to bow to his contemptuous pique when confronted publicly by a difficult subject. He may have to convince people that his game is not only fashionable and exciting and telegenic but on the up-and-up. The possibility of manipulated games raised the stakes about NBA officiating beyond the Crawford or racial bias stories. They called the game itself into question, and mere glibness or disdain won't work for Stern here.
Nor world it work for the NFL's Roger Goodell, Major League Baseball's Bud Selig, the NHL's Gary Bettman, MLS' Don Garber or any league commissioner. Ultimately, the personalities and the athletic gifts and the celebrity wheel and the bling and the multimedia machine balance on the virtue of the game itself. If the game is not to be trusted, we have professional wrestling, only without the stylized violence. We have art forms without validity. We have entertainment that is a lie.
That is why David Stern must hope to his very soul that Tim Donaghy is innocent at best, and an isolated case at worst. Stern must live in daily dread that there might be another official, or a player, or a team official in a position of influence who is weak, or vulnerable, or venal.
The sport is nothing without the game, and if no other useful lesson is learned here, it is that.
E-mail Ray Ratto at firstname.lastname@example.org.