Links: How To Fix The NBA

by July 23, 2007

by Lang Whitaker

I have never bet on sports. It’s a big business, I understand, and I’ve been through the casinos and sports books out in Vegas. I have several very close friends who like to bet on football, and I love going to Vegas and playing blackjack. But I’ve never put money on sports.

It’s not that I feel morally superior to people who do bet on sports. I just figure it’s a slippery slope, not only financially but ethically. Look, I work in the media, I hear things, I know which players stayed out late the night before a game or which team is quietly having problems getting along. If I was a bettor, those are things that could probably work to my advantage. But the only reason I know those things is because I am a journalist, and there’s a code in place that says I will report the information I know to you guys, not call it in to a bookie. As I said, it’s a slippery slope, one that I can handle best by just staying off it to begin with.

From what I’ve read, Tim Donaghy felt differently. He liked to bet, liked the competition and excitement generated by having money on the line. And it sounds like all of sudden he was in too deep.

Five days ago, most NBA fans wouldn’t have been able to pick Tim Donaghy out of a lineup. In the post I did on Friday morning, I wrote, “It’s a guy whose name probably won’t ring any bells unless you’re a hardcore NBA fan, and even then you still might not know the guy. When I heard the name it took me a few seconds to remember what he looks like, and I know all of the NBA refs.” Before Donaghy had been publicly fingered as the suspect, I started working on a post about him being the guy, because I knew once his name dropped there would be a rush of information dropping. So I did a google image search for his name and didn’t turn up much of anything until I added “referee” after it.

Now Tim Donaghy is everywhere. Now we know everything about him, from feuds with his former neighbors to where he’s from and where he lives today. Now you see his photo, you know you’re looking at Tim Donaghy.

But what are we looking at? A man, one who screwed up. Big time.

Also, I think it’s important to remember that Tim Donaghy might still be innocent in all of this. Not saying that he is innocent, just that he could be. We’re still dealing with allegations right now, and in America, last I checked, you’re innocent until proven guilty.

Allegedly, of course.

To me, the most incredible part is that if Donaghy was actually screwing with the game, the NBA didn’t seem to notice. He was supposedly consistently rated as one of the NBA’s best officials. I don’t know if that says more about the NBA’s incompetence when it comes to rating their officials or Donaghy’s ability to keep a secret.

David Stern has always said the most important thing to the NBA is the League’s relationship with its fans. This makes sense: No matter how you look at it, the fans pay the bills. Now, knowing that one NBA referee was allegedly bending the rules, how does the NBA make sure the fans still believe that truth and honesty are paramount when it comes to officials?

Well, for a long time, the NBA has allowed its referees to almost be above the game. Even while fans — and even NBA team owners and coaches — criticized the refs, Stern has stubbornly defended the refs, allowing that while they aren’t perfect they always strive for perfection, that he felt the NBA had the best officials in all of sports. Meanwhile, the refs became something of a running joke among fans, to the point where saying that games were fixed wasn’t that big a deal. And when the refs made bad calls, coaches said something, got fined, and then the story went away.

But now the most important thing on David Stern’s agenda needs to be convincing fans that NBA games are not predetermined. Maybe that means making the referees available to the media after games so they can be accountable for the calls they made. Perhaps it means instituting some sort of instant replay or challenge system so teams can question officials they feel are biased. Or maybe Stern could start making the referee evaluations part of the public record.

I don’t know what the exact answer will be, but something needs to be done. Somehow, some way, going forward there must be transparent and consistent accountability from the NBA officials. That’s the only way to retain (or regain) any sort of trust from the paying and viewing public.

Will Stern do something as drastic as instant replay or even making the refs face the media after each game? Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised. Stern’s longtime m.o. has been to react swiftly and decisively, usually, if anything, overreacting. By making the NBA officiating process as clear and inviolable as possible, Stern would surely show that the NBA is, above all, committed to fair play. And perhaps he’d even set a tone the rest of the sports Leagues would have to follow.

Part of being a sports fan has always been dealing with rulings from officials. One bad call can change everything. Well, what if there were no more bad calls? What if every call in the NBA was suddenly open for review? Could a sport become completely fair?

Probably not, because we’re dealing with humans here. The refs are human. And sometimes humans make mistakes.

But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be accountable for their decisions.