Earlier this week, former NBA referee Tim Donaghy released a four-page letter alleging that the NBA fixes games in playoffs and sometimes in the regular season. It should be observed at the start that Mr. Donaghy is hardly an objective witness in this matter, having admitted to gambling on NBA games he officiated. NBA Commissioner David Stern has pointed out that Donaghy could very well be trying to play for sympathy from the sentencing judge, or to make a deal with prosecutors. Also, as a group the referees of any professional league are a largely misunderstood group, who have to hustle just as hard as the athletes and who must be just as smart to what is going on, yet who never get paid even a fraction of the money made by just about everyone else in the sport. Ric Bucher of ESPN has a great article on just what it’s like to be an NBA ref.
I do not believe Tim Donaghy’s claims, frankly. Officiating is a vocation more than a profession; you do it for love of the game if you do it for any length of time, and you accept, in addition to all the study, training, road travel and stress of doing the job, a lot of undeserved abuse from people who do not have the first idea what the rules are, much less how they apply in the situations you call. When I called Baseball, there was a running schtick where umps in my TASO chapter kept a list of the “best” insults they’d heard from coaches and fans. If the NBA had decided to rig games on anything like the basis claimed by Mister Donaghy, we’d have heard about it long before now from the veterans who love the sport like their own kids. A lawyer representing several NBA officials (who are not allowed to speak publicly, as part of their employment with the NBA) said “if a referee were to do that he wouldn’t be around long. Right now, they feel like a cop feels when another cop goes bad.”
Unfortunately for Mr. Stern, that does not settle the matter. I believe the facts are that the NBA referees do not give preferential treatment for any one team over another, nor would they be party to any plan to rig games or a playoff series. That does not mean, however, that the league’s hands are clean. For many years now, the NBA has ignored incidents of thuggery by players on-court and off, by a sharp decline in moral standards of personal conduct, and apparent inequities in how the league treats different franchises. The ‘rigged game’ claim found a ready audience this year, because of the sloppy and unprofesssional standards of this year’s playoffs. Whether or not it is fact, the sense that the NBA wanted a Boston-LA championship series is a strong one, and that appearance is important to the league’s condition and needs. The NBA’s refusal to address how its actions and statements are perceived has caused minor issues to become a major scandal. This problem won’t go away, Mister Stern, unless and until you sit down with the owners and fans of each town, and find some honesty and humility in your answers and pro mises. Arrogance won’t cut it anymore, and neither will denial.