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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

David Stern Sheds Some Light on the Tim Donaghy Investigation

NBA Commissioner David Stern held a press conference today that differed from any other that he has previously held. Usually, Stern presents an image of being entirely in control--in control of the league, in control of himself and in control of how the league's image is presented. When he suspended Ron Artest for an entire season due to the "Malice in the Palace," Stern was asked if a vote was taken to decide the appropriate punishment and he replied, "It was unanimous, one to nothing."

Today we saw a different side of David Stern, who frankly admitted that he had to "walk this difficult line" of what he could and could not say due to the FBI's ongoing investigation of disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy. There were some questions that he simply is not permitted to answer and others that led him to pause and state that he has to very carefully choose his words. Contrary to any suggestions otherwise, Stern emphatically declared that the NBA did not know about this matter until the FBI contacted the league on June 20. He indicated that the NBA would have liked to have fired Donaghy at that time but could not do so because this could have potentially impaired the FBI investigation. Ultimately, Donaghy resigned on July 9. Stern said, "This is the most serious and worst situation that I have ever experienced" in 40 years of involvement with the NBA as a fan, a lawyer for the league and as its commissioner for more than two decades.

Before answering questions, Stern made a brief statement. He outlined the security procedures that the NBA currently has in place, managed by a security department that is stocked with former FBI agents, state police investigators and local police officers. Stern also said that the NBA has a Las Vegas consultant who monitors betting lines to make sure that there is no suspicious activity regarding gambling on NBA games. He said that background checks are made of all NBA referees to the fullest extent of the law. In terms of evaluating referees' on court performance, Stern explained that since the 2003-04 season the NBA has had a system that places an observer at every game. This person monitors every call and every non-call "that is deemed by our observers to be incorrect." The observers chart the games and review them on tape as well. Their work is "audited" by group supervisors; this year, the NBA "audited the auditors" by hiring additional experts to oversee this entire process. Stern said that the primary purpose of this system is to "increase call accuracy" and that it is "not predominantly developed as a screen for criminal activity."

Stern gave the following timeline regarding the Donaghy case. In January 2005, the NBA found out that Donaghy was involved in a dispute with his neighbors. The neighbors claimed that he was harassing them but he asserted that they were harassing him. The NBA deployed its own investigators to look into the matter and in the course of their investigation an allegation was made that Donaghy gambled in Atlantic City (not on sports, because there is not a sports book there). Donaghy denied this and Stern said that the investigation of that aspect of the case came up "negative." Nevertheless, the NBA was not pleased that Donaghy was involved in this contentious dispute with his neighbors and informed him that such problems could cause him to be terminated. Donaghy was disciplined by not being allowed to work the second round of the 2005 playoffs; he had worked the second round in 2004. Stern added that Donaghy ranks in the "top tier of accuracy" among NBA referees.

Then came the June 20 call from the FBI, followed by a meeting between NBA executives and FBI investigators the next day. Stern said that he is "unable to comment on the continuing investigation." He added that what he knows now, subject to change, is that Donaghy is accused of betting both on games that he officiated and games that he did not officiate and that he also is accused of providing information to others to enable them to profit from betting on games, all of which took place in the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. Stern took pains to stress that at this point Donaghy is the only referee known to be involved, referring repeatedly to this matter as an "isolated case." At the FBI's request, Stern informed very few people within the league about the investigation. As a consequence of that, the NBA has not yet been able to involve the number of people it would take to do an adequate film review of the 150 or so games that Donaghy officiated during this time. Stern said that he does not know how many games are potentially involved nor which specific games might have been affected--and that he will likely be in the dark about this until Donaghy is indicted or makes a plea, which Stern indicated may happen. It must be a very strange feeling for someone who usually exercises such total control of things to be so completely in the dark about a matter that could affect the very future of the NBA, as well as his own legacy as commissioner.

Asked about his initial feelings in the wake of the FBI's June 20 phone call, Stern said simply that he thought, "I can't believe it's happening to us." He added that although he is surprised he is no more surprised than the FBI or CIA are when they discover rogue agents who have turned against their country. Stern said that when one person who is acting alone is determined to do illegal activities that it can be very difficult to detect. He pledged to do everything in his power to restore the "sacred trust" that fans have in the NBA and to rebuild the "covenant" between the league and its fans that has been damaged by Donaghy's conduct.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:53 PM

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8 Comments:

At Wednesday, July 25, 2007 3:34:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

Much food for thought there.

I don't think I ever watched Stern live, but the man looked right about to throw up quite a few times. He stammered, he paused, he seemed to recite certain sentences from memory - not exactly the iron duke we've all come to know and love.

But the punch was still there, and he flashed it twice: once at the "if I am reading you" (when he replied "you don't have to read me you can ask me") and the second when he made what I took to be a veiled reference to some columns claiming low salaries make refs susceptible to bribes. I think he implied that others with similar discipline roles make far less money, meaning cops. That was the old Stern punch of yore.

I am no expert at press conferences, but why did they take so long to start asking real questions? ESPN asked how he felt or some other similar silly thing, and it took way too long until proper questions were asked, namely if Donaghy actually manipulated game results or scores.

Which was the biggest question of them all, I think.

 
At Wednesday, July 25, 2007 6:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Overall I think that Stern did the best that he could under extremely trying circumstances. Clearly, the FBI has not told him everything that is going on and they have also instructed him not to reveal at least some of what they have told him. That is why he was so obviously being careful about how he chose his words. It's hard to act like you are in control when you are, in fact, not in control.

You mentioned that we saw glimpses of the Stern of old. One other glimpse was when he retorted, "I think that I was just asked when I stopped beating my wife."

Questioners raise their hands and are recognized on a first come, first served basis. So, the quality/seriousness of the questions depends on who raises their hands first and who gets called on first. These press conferences contain a mixture of local, national, print, radio and TV media, so you have a lot of different people who are working different angles and thus asking questions that fit in with the kind of story they are going to write/air on radio/TV. So, if someone is doing a story about how this affects Stern personally, then he/she will ask about that, etc. Also, like any other line of work, some people are just better at it than others, so they think of better, more direct questions. I've been at some of these things and some of the questions are so dumb that other reporters literally roll their eyes and/or make comments under their breath.

What exactly Donaghy did and how he did it are of course the two main questions, but Stern made it very clear that the FBI has kept him in the dark about the answers to those questions. That is why Stern kept saying that all he knows as of right now is that Donaghy is thought to have bet on games he officiated and games that he did not officiate and that he is thought to have provided confidential information to other bettors. So, after Stern said that and made it clear that he could not say more on the subject then the questioning went in other directions.

If I were there, the point that I would have hammered at is how can it be that the NBA monitors every single call and non-call but the league did not notice anything fishy about Donaghy, who allegedly fixed/shaved/manipulated at least 10 games. Stern's answer for the moment appears to be (1) the monitoring systems was designed to detect honest errors, not criminal actions and (2) due to the secrecy of the FBI investigation the league has not yet had a chance to involve enough people to look at the game tapes to figure out what Donaghy may have been doing. My response to that would be, supposedly the NBA is already monitoring every single call and non-call, so a pattern of bad calls--whether honest or criminal in intent--should not be hard to detect.

The bottom line is that what we have been told publicly does not add up yet. I don't think that Stern would have given me a more in depth answer than he gave anyone else but someone at some point has to raise the above questions and make sure that they are eventually answered.

 
At Wednesday, July 25, 2007 11:03:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

When Stern was worried about stupid things like dress code, changing the ball and not telling anyone, and the hidden (not hidden to me) racism that is the underage draft rule one of his referees is hanging out with the mob. You cant tell me Stern, the godfather, didnt know what was going on. He should apologize because this is his league. He is always arrogant (I have no problem with that) on every other matter. Now he is being exposed and there is nothing he can do about it. And he knows there is more than one ref involved. He saved himself some room when he said on the basis of his current understanding that this is an isolated incident. Thats very key.

 
At Wednesday, July 25, 2007 3:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I certainly don't believe that Stern knew what was going on with Donaghy and the mob. Based on his press conference, he still may not know everything that happened. He certainly gave the impression that the FBI is informing him only on a need to know basis.

Stern and/or other NBA figures can be criticized for not having a better system in place to detect this but that is different from suggesting that he knew it was happening and didn't stop it.

This is why I keep saying that I would like to know how Donaghy did whatever he did from a logistical standpoint. Once Donaghy's methods are revealed then we will have a better sense of how he evaded detection and how culpable the NBA really is in all of this. The "best" case for the NBA is that Donaghy is a "rogue" who had a really clever way of getting around the NBA's safeguards. Other scenarios are much worse, either involving incompetence or the complicity of other referees and/or NBA personnel.

 
At Thursday, July 26, 2007 2:30:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

We must keep in mind that according to Stern it has not yet been established whether he actually shaved points. Chances don't look good, admittedly.

More than the review system, maybe the question is how come they never knew that he was gambling and losing significant amounts of money, which is reportedly the cause of the problem and something in direct conflict with Stern's opening statement.

 
At Thursday, July 26, 2007 2:48:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

What help could Donaghy be supplying to the mob if he was not shaving points, either by going against one team or by trying to push the game into "over" or "under" territory? How else could he be assuring that they would win money?

You are right that the NBA needs to look not only at the logistics of that, which I have been focusing my questioning on, but also how Donaghy's financial/gambling problems went undetected.

 
At Thursday, July 26, 2007 3:19:00 PM, Anonymous jn said...

Stern went into quite a bit of detail regarding sensitive or confidential information possessed by refs. It is kind of weak to imagine that to be the kind of service that a major league ref in the pocket of mobsters would yield, but I suspect that unless point shaving is definitely proved, probably by a confession, the official line will be that no game results or scores were manipulated and the misdeeds were confined to informing of ref assignments.

Which would lead to the conclusion Bill Simmons was suggesting: that ref assignments control the outcome of games. But I guess the NBA would bank on fans not making that connection.

[I don't mean I believe ref assignments dictate game results, but if the NBA claims that's all a crooked ref provided, that'd be the logical conclusion even if they don't realize that's the message they'd be sending.]

 
At Thursday, July 26, 2007 3:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

All I can say is that what we know right now--which obviously is not the complete story--does not add up. I don't understand how one NBA ref could affect point spreads in a game without being detected by the system that was already in place and I don't believe that knowing a little bit in advance which officials are assigned to which games is that valuable. We really won't know exactly what's what until the FBI reveals specifically what Donaghy is alleged to have done and how he supposedly did it.

 

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